June 28, 2012 | by Rachael Maddux
Howard Finster was fixing a bicycle in his Summerville, Georgia, workshop one day when a smudge of paint on his index finger took the shape of a face, a face that spoke to him and told him, “Paint sacred art.” Finster, then in his sixties, had been many things in his life: a teenage tent-revival preacher, a pastor, a mill worker. He had never been an artist, but he had also never been a man to shirk the word of God.
That was in 1976. The Lord told him to make five thousand works, a quota he reached just before Christmas 1985. By the time he died in 2001, his catalogue had swelled to more than forty-six thousand pieces. He devised an intricate numbering system and timestamped many of his works upon completion; he often painted through the night, sleeping only intermittently. Sometimes he signed his paintings BY HOWARD FINSTER, OF GOD. MAN OF VISIONS.
May 9, 2012 | by Rachael Maddux
For a while after college, one of my husband Joe’s best friends worked at a used books–and-CDs store in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where we all grew up. It was called McKay but everyone called it McKay’s—a tiny but somehow crucial distinction—and it was a wonderland of dog-eared pages and scratched ninety-two-cent discs and ineffable smells of humanity. Michael was always bringing home strange treasures that he’d eventually sell back for the exact amount he’d paid, but sometimes things would be too good not to hold onto. One summer Joe’s birthday merited a particularly special gift: a slim black paperback with a creased cover bearing a photo of a goateed man staring out from the center of a pink orb. Flaming rainbows flanked him on either side, and rays of light shot out from underneath his likeness. If anyone ever warranted such a wonder of post-midcentury graphic design, it was surely this man, Doc Anderson, who was, as his book cover proclaimed in yellow caps, THE MAN WHO SEES TOMORROW.
The book was published in 1970, its spine proclaiming it a “Paperback Library Occult Original” (retail price: seventy-five cents). It’s part biography and part defensive exegesis of Anderson’s psychic pronouncements, all researched and compiled by Robert E. Smith, which seems to be a pseudonym for one Warren B. Smith, who penned dozens of books on paranormal and cryptozoological subjects during his decades-long career. (A sampling from his bibliography: Let's Face Facts About Flying Saucers, 1967; Strange Abominable Snowmen, 1970, Lost Cities of the Ancients—Unearthed!, 1976; and, inexplicably, The Sensual Male, 1971.)
December 22, 2011 | by Rachael Maddux
In the world of candy stores, and this candy store in particular, Christmas is a perpetual condition that just happens to spike at the end of the year. A red-and-green decorating scheme carried throughout the shop—I could not escape it, even when I retreated, as I sometimes did, to the store’s one bathroom, also tinged with red and green, just to shut out the world for a minute or two. On the sales floor, the shelves were heavy with saltwater taffy and boxes of truffles and delightfully analog toys—balsa gliders, pick-up sticks, chunky wooden puzzles. The general effect was that of being buried inside the holiday stocking of a child who’d been very, very good that year—along with the child himself, and a hoard of his less well-mannered friends and their overstressed, oblivious parents.
I took the gig shortly after finding myself laid off from the job I’d had for the last four years as an editor at a music magazine. I felt adrift and thought tending to a candy store, such a bastion of simple pleasures, might anchor me more firmly to the world, and also I thought that money might be a thing I’d might want to have again. But in my vague desperation I had forgotten about humans’ terrific knack for rendering even the most ostensibly pleasant pursuits completely soul crushing, and how that tendency increases as the winter days darken.
October 13, 2011 | by Rachael Maddux
“Close your eyes,” the man told us, and we did. “If you died today, do you know for sure if you would go to heaven? If you don’t, raise your hand.” When my hand curled slowly into the air, two strangers rushed over to me, kneeling one on either side of my metal folding chair, as if I’d just been struck down on a busy street. They greeted me in warm, soft tones. One opened a small leather-bound book and ran her fingers along the close-set type, then inclined the page towards me. She underlined a passage with her fingernail and commanded me to read it.
For if you tell others with your own mouth that Jesus Christ is your Lord, and believe in your own heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in his heart that a man becomes right with God; and with his mouth he tells others of his faith, confirming his salvation.
At my feet, the two strangers blinked up at me expectantly. “I think I misunderstood the question,” I lied, because I hadn’t. Read More »
August 10, 2011 | by Rachael Maddux
In early February 1996, an ice storm smothered my hometown with a blanket of deadly frost several inches thick. It was magnificent, sleek, and treacherous, the perfect surface for my eleven-year-old self to hurtle headlong on my mom’s Flexible Flyer, going briefly airborne before I hit the frozen pavement, my sled coming to rest squarely on my right hand. I spent the rest of that week inside my parents’ house, my right hand wrapped in ice and Ace bandages, and my left fumbling through a paperback copy of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I’d received the whole box set that Christmas and had promptly set about devouring them.
Despite my unhappy convalescence, I felt as if the ice storm was a gift of sorts, bestowed upon me from the great literary beyond by Laura herself. It was a chilly glimpse into her life, otherwise so remote from my own. When my dad went out to clear the driveway, he was Pa trekking out to the barn in a blizzard; when the power went out, briefly, and my mother boiled water for hot chocolate over the fireplace in our living room, she was Ma making chicory. When I rode in the back seat of our Plymouth Grand Voyager as it crept across icy, rutted surface roads en route to the emergency room, where my hand was deemed unbroken, my family was the Wilders crossing the frozen expanse of Lake Pepin on the way out to Indian Territory.
The writer and editor Wendy McClure also adored the Little House series as a child. After her mother died a few years ago, she fell back into them—fell so hard that her life became consumed, for a time, with churning butter and reading biographies and ferreting out the historical reality from the deeply beloved, quasifictional world of the stories. From it all, McClure wrote her own book, The Wilder Life, which came out last April and which I read in greedy bursts on my train trips to and from work. It was early spring in the South, the underground platforms already sagging with humidity. But daily my arms prickled with goose bumps as McClure rifled through the books’ most intense pleasures, the food and the cozy houses and the unceasing restlessness that pulls the Ingalls family ever westward. Read More »
June 21, 2011 | by Rachael Maddux
Margaret Mitchell was on her way to see a movie when she was struck by an off-duty cabbie driving too fast down Peachtree Street one night in Atlanta in 1949. Her death five days later cemented certain facts of her life, most notably that her first novel would also be her last. But she had made the most of her debut: in its nearly 1,500 pages, Gone with the Wind captured the romance and demise of America’s Old South like none other before or since, sold one million copies within six months of its publication, secured a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1937, and inspired one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time.
Little was said about Mitchell’s death one recent evening in Atlanta, when several dozen of her fans—Windies, as they like to be called—gathered for a tour and graveside toast at the historic Oakland Cemetery, where Mitchell is buried and where her plot is among the most visited. The soiree was one of many held in and around the city this month in honor of Gone with the Wind’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The crowd was almost entirely female; Gone with the Wind handbags abounded, and at least one wristwatch bore the iconic image of Rhett and Scarlett’s smoldering onscreen embrace. Though most wore street clothes, some ladies had arrived in 1860s-ish period dress, their dedication eclipsing both the melting late-afternoon heat and the outfits’ flagrant anachronisms—clip-on chignons, hemlines revealing reputation-shattering amounts of ankle, synthetic fabrics not invented in Mitchell’s lifetime.
Until recently, I was only vaguely acquainted with Scarlett O’Hara. I was raised in Tennessee by multigenerational Southerners and grew up visiting Civil War battlefields on field trips and family vacations. I went to college in Atlanta—Mitchell’s hometown and the setting for most of her opus—and have lived here ever since. But my knowledge of Gone with the Wind was only sufficient enough to know that Rhett Butler’s most famous line from the movie perfectly summed up my sentiments regarding the whole franchise: frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.