Half Past Ghostly in Patricia McKissack’s “The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural”

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Last Monday, I shared picture books that feature Southern ghosts. I thought of following it through with another collection of stories from the South, this time written by the amazing Patricia C. McKissack and a few illustrations by Brian Pinkney. Perfect for our current bimonthly theme on Monsters, Beasts, and Chimeras: Spooks and Spectres.

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What is Dark-Thirty? In the Author’s Note, McKissack explained the meaning of the book title:

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

When I was growing up in the South, we kids called the half hour just before nightfall the dark-thirty. We had exactly half an hour to get home before the monsters came out.

While many of us may have heard of the witching hour (3 am), this is the first that I’ve heard of dark-thirty. She also recommended that the stories be read during that moment when the earth is in the act of turning its face against the sun:

They should be shared at that special time when it is neither day nor night and when shapes and shadows play tricks on the mind. When you feel fear tingling in your toes and zinging up your spine like a closing zipper, you have experienced the delicious horror of a tale of the dark-thirty.

There are only ten stories found in this collection of creepy tales. Each strange tale managed to capture the in-between state of being neither here nor there: a blending of the surreal and the sordidly real; the supernatural and that which is of this world with its all-too-human foibles and monstrosities.

Darkness that Resides in Men’s Hearts. One of the things that I liked about the book is that it has seamlessly interwoven actual historical accounts with homegrown legends of mysterious disappearances, folk whisperings of the real stories behind the official accounts lending the entire narrative an uncanny credibility, and just a touch of darkness. Never too much to create a bitter aftertaste in the mouth, but just enough for one to recognize cruelty, pain, and slivers of truth. I won’t mention all ten stories but only those which caught my eye.

In The Legend of Pin Oak, the reader sees how sibling rivalry between half-brothers in the 1850s can fester like an open wound that would not heal, leading a brother to sell his own brother with the giggling hysterical laughter of a foolish man consumed by spite, resentment, and jealousy that bites.

We Organized is a story in verse that is based on a transcribed conversation which can be read in a ten-thousand-paged manuscript entitled The Slave Narratives, a project undertaken by the Library of Congress during the Great Depression of the 1930s. While it talks about the shackles of slavery, there is an incongruously-humorous tone in the narrative that shows how strange fruits can come in many forms, hanging in a sycamore tree – persuading a capricious and cruel master to honour his promises for fear of otherworldly reprisal.

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Justice reminded me a little bit of A Wreath for Emmett Till with the scales of justice being weighted in favor of white hoods and blinded by a collective sense of entitlement, and mindless violence that gnaws at one’s insides. Similar to Lady Macbeth who is unable to wash the stain of death in her hands, here we can see ghostly traces of pointless deaths etched in the windowpanes of a bigoted man’s house.

Inviting Evil In. Other stories take a much sharper turn towards the supernatural as seen in The Woman in the Snow where a woman with her sick young child is doomed to forever roam the streets around Blackbird Express hoping to come across a more sympathetic bus driver who can bring her child to the hospital, trapped in the eternal winter of her soul.

The reader is reminded of the trite adage: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it in The Conjure Brother complete with spells, potions, and salves to bring a full-grown brother to life where none existed before. Boo Mama is a glimpse at creatures who live deep in the forests, neither bear nor ape, the Sasquatch, the Big Foot and their boundless sympathies and maternal instincts. I like this better than Coraline’s button-eyed alternate mother.

The story that truly gave me the chills, though, was The Gingi. Before McKissack begins any of her stories, she would always provide some author’s note to provide greater information about the context and the background of the narrative:

There is a universal folk theme that repeatedly warns: Evil needs an invitation. One of the many stories based on this idea comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa, who believe an evil spirit can’t enter a house without first being welcomed. To trick an unsuspecting victim into freely letting it enter, the malevolent force uses clever and beguiling disguises. So a charm or an amulet was always used by the Yoruba as protection against evil. Today most people reject the mystical beliefs of their ancestors, but they keep a talisman around – like a rabbit’s foot, a four-leaf clover, or a gingi – just in case. (p.127)

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Evidently, there are universal elements about the creatures of the dark that we believe in across cultures, as well as the rituals that people practice to make them go away. In the Philippines, a gingi is called an anting-anting, an amulet, a charm that would protect humans from malevolent spirits. This is the story that made my flesh crawl just a little bit, with evil invited in unwittingly, until it eventually takes over one’s entire home:

And the house itself changed. Light seemed to avoid the rooms, regardless of how sunny it was outside. (p. 138)

Makes me wonder about the demons that we invite into our places of sanctuary.

Love is Greater than Fear. More than being a mere collection of ghost stories, I believe that this book is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to thrive despite fear; to find glimpses of salvation despite the overwhelming darkness in man’s souls as documented in history; and while there are creatures that simply cannot be explained away, they would only be as powerful as we allow them to be. As Patricia McKissack’s own grandfather, Daddy James, said in her semi-autobiographical The Chicken-Coop Monster, the final story in the book: “There is no fear in love.” (p. 164).

The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Brian Pinkney. A Yearling Book, 1992. Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

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A Newbery Honor Book, A Coretta Scott King Award Winner, An ALA Notable Children’s Book, An NCSS-CBC Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, an IRA Teachers’ Choice

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 45 (35)

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Read-a-Latte Challenge: 209 (150)

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