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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Thornton P. Knowles, 1931-1998: An Iconoclastic Writer

    Note: I first posted this thumbnail literary biography in November 2014 without letting on that Mr. Knowles, a product of my imagination, was a fictitious character. I re-post the expanded piece in the spirit of this year's April Fool's day.
   
     Thornton Prescott Knowles was born in Nitro, West Virginia on December 3, 1931. His mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse and his father worked as a janitor in a factory that manufactured marbles on the banks of the Ohio River. Darlene Prescott Knowles, born and raised in East Liverpool, Ohio, gave birth to her only child when she was 44-years-old. Odell Knowles, Thornton's alcoholic father, hanged himself in an abandoned barn when Thornton was fifteen.

     In 1953, Knowles graduated from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Three years later, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Mountain State University in Beckley, West Virginia.

     From 1956 to 1976, Dr. Knowles worked as an industrial psychologist for the Wheeling Steel Corporation in the West Virginia panhandle forty miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He lived in a modest home on the Ohio River in the village of Beach Bottom, West Virginia.

     In 1956, Knowles published his first novel in the noir crime genre. In Homicidal Ideation, a paranoid wife beater undergoing psychological treatment murders his counselor under the mistaken believe the psychologist was having an affair with the wife. The highly auto-biographical novel, set in a fictitious West Virginia town, received very little critical attention and did not go into paperback. The book, however, highlighted the author's rather low opinion of his fellow man and his taste for humor bordering on the macabre.

     Rigor Mortis is Not Your Friend, a crime novel featuring a psychology major who murders his abnormal psychology professor and tries to make the homicide look like suicide, came out two years later. Detectives horribly bungle the investigation. The student gets away with the crime, graduates with honors, and later achieves minor notoriety as a mass market true crime writer.

     In 1961, Knowles published a short novel called, The Friction Tape Isn't Holding. This mystery thriller involves a clever, sociopathic serial killer who terrorizes a large university psychology department. As it turns out, the murderer is a former graduate of the program who was driven crazy by his inability to get his first novel published. The police bungle this case by beating a confession out of the suspect. The judge ignores the unconstitutionality of the investigation and allows the introduction of the evidence at the murder trial. Notwithstanding an incompetent prosecutor, the jury finds the defendant guilty. Knowles' portrayal of the murder victims and the brutal detectives makes the reader almost root for the serial killer.

     In Writer's Block, 1962, a washed-up novelist from Follensbee, West Virginia named Barry "Corky" Legatt, pays a so-called "writer's psychologist" $5,000 to rejuvenate his attenuated creativity and his passion to write. Following the therapy sessions, Corky is no better off. When the therapist refuses to refund the fee, Barry hires an out-of-work screenwriter to kill the psychologist, a scam artist named Chlorine Shingles. The murder-for-hire plot goes off as planned. As a result of an indifferent police investigation (who cares about the murder of a psychologist?), Chlorine's death goes unpunished. While the therapy didn't do the trick, the successful murder scheme got the novelist's creative juices flowing. The now inspired murder-for-hire mastermind bases a novel, right down to every murderous detail, on his own deadly scheme. Corky's literary agent quickly places the crime novel with a major publisher that promotes the book into a bestseller. So, a happy ending in Writer's Block? As one would expect in a Thornton P. Knowles creation, no way. Corky, in writing his novel, Deadly Therapy, incriminates himself as the real life mastermind behind Chlorine Shingle's murder. A year after his greatest literary success, Corky finds himself on the way to prison for the rest of his life. When asked by a reporter if spending the rest of his life behind bars was worth becoming the author of a bestselling novel, Corky answers, "Hell yes!"

     For Whom the Bullet Tolls, 1963, is a darkly comic noir crime novel about a forensic ballistics expert who almost gets away with murdering his drug counselor by switching the barrel of the murder weapon. As one would expect in a Knowles piece of fiction, the investigators are cruel and stupid and the victim is worthy of his gruesome fate.

     Knowles' editor at Rhododendron Press, T. Duie Pyle, wrote a piece about his cranky author in The Golden Rod Review titled, "Thornton P. Knowles: Armed and Humorous." In the 1974 piece, Pyle describes Knowles' novels as "hilarious, hard-boiled, off-beat, irreverent, raucous, and satirical." The editor compares Knowles' style, voice and point of view to the writings of Ring Lardner, S.J. Perelman, Damon Runyon and Ross H. Spencer. According to Mr. Pyle, the fact that none of Thornton Knowles' books made the best seller lists makes this author one of literature's best kept secrets.

     In 1966, Knowles published his most outlandish work, Last Rites, a weirdly gripping tale about a professional hit man who finds Jesus and becomes a priest. The dialogue that takes place in the confessional booth is hilarious. Knowles' last novel, Swallow the Leader, is an absurd psychological thriller featuring a psychopath who murders, then eats the flesh of his victims who are small town mayors. In this black comedy, Knowles vents his rage at petty, small potatoes politicians.

     In 1976, Dr. Knowles published what would become his best-known work, a 650-page nonfiction book called The Psychology of Writing. With this book, Knowles infuriated the literary community with lines like: "Writers think they're more talented than they really are. Whether that makes them unlikeable, or unlikable people gravitate to writing, is a social scientific mystery. In the end, it doesn't really matter why writers tend to be jerks." To illustrate his hypothesis, Knowles frequently cites his favorite author, the southern California novelist, poet and short story writer, Charles Bukowski. In discussing how pretentious some poets are, Knowles mentions a West Virginia poet who wrote under the name Toussaint L'ouveture. The poet's birth name: Walter Box. Knowles considered L'ouveture's literary work as phony as his name.

     In The Psychology of Writing, Knowles discusses the writer's proclivity toward substance abuse. He profiles Truman Capote and novelists who struggled with drugs and booze. While Knowles admired Capote's talent, he was not a big fan of Capote's narrative nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood.  He considered the best-seller a second-class novel passed off as true crime.

     Although he told people that dream analysis was a fraud, Dr. Knowles, in The Psychology of Writing, put forward his own theory of dreams. According to Knowles, there are two kinds of dreamers, people who dream fiction and those who dream nonfiction. The fiction people dream of people and places unknown to them in their waking lives. The nonfiction types dream about family, friends, and past experiences. According to Dr. Knowles, fiction dreamers are more creative and usually more intelligent than their nonfiction counterparts. He said that much of his writing originated in his dreams.   

     In 1980, Dr. Knowles began teaching a writer's workshop at Alliance College in western Pennsylvania. He held that position until the school closed in 1987. (The campus is now a woman's prison.) Finished with academia, Knowles moved to Elkins, West Virginia where he opened a private anger management practice.

     Knowles' 1989 novel, Celebrity Stalker, was his only work of fiction not set in West Virginia. The story features a Los Angeles FBI agent who essentially wrote the book on the investigation of celebrity stalking cases. Halfway into his tenure as FBI agent, Ross Benson, sick of dealing with Hollywood celebrities, begs for reassignment. His supervisor promises to get Benson off the stalker squad after Benson takes on a new case involving one of Hollywood's most famous and beloved actresses. Special Agent Benson accepts the assignment and in the course of his investigation identifies the stalker and takes him into custody. At that point he accepts a position on the fugitive squad. The actress stalker victim, however, has fallen in love with the FBI agent and insists they begin a romantic relationship even though she knows that Agent Benson is married. When Gloria Swandyke's advances are repelled by the agent, she retaliates by anonymously harassing him with threatening letters and obscene phone calls. The stalking soon escalates into vandalism and threats against his wife. Gloria Swandyke, a better actress than stalker, is caught, and amid an enormous amount of publicity, is arrested and taken to jail. At her televised trial, the jury finds Swandyke not guilty by reason of insanity. Following two years in a fancy mental health facility, Gloria stars in a movie about her ordeal. The film is a massive hit and earns her an Oscar. Agent Benson, in response to his tormentor's success and the way he is represented in the film, takes his own life. In typical Thornton P. Knowles fashion, evil triumphs over good culminating in a very unhappy ending.

     While residing in Elkins, Knowles also wrote two small books of poetry. One of his most vocal critics, the poet Yancy Follicle, in an interview published in the now defunct literary journal, Ivory Tower, said that Dr. Knowles could manage everyone's anger but his own. Follicle called Knowles' fiction "burlesque." Knowles fired back, calling Follicle's poems the work of an insipid, puerile, ivory tower hack. (Knowles once recommended to another West Virginia poet, an English teacher named Felix Clappe, to immediately join AA--Alliteration Anonymous.)

     Over the years, Knowles maintained a steady correspondence with the West Virginia poet Oscar Coggins who wrote under the name, J.C. Pancake. The two men had what could be described as a love-hate relationship. Coggins once called Knowles a mildly-talented nut case. Knowles returned the favor by calling Coggins a red-neck, inchoate sex offender whose poetry reeked of perversion. After that, their correspondence came to an end.

     In 1994, Doyle vonPekker, retired English professor and editor of the poetry journal Mountain Breezes, approached Knowles with the idea of an authorized biography. Knowles, who had once referred to vonPekker's free-verse poetry as akin to the rantings of an unmedicated schizophrenic, declined. When an archivist with West Virginia University asked Knowles if he had plans regarding his literary papers, Knowles said yes--to burn them in his backyard.

     While Thornton Knowles didn't consider himself a short story writer, a genre he ridiculed as more fartsy than artsy, he did publish several stories in various crime fiction digests. Two of these works found their way into a pair of short story anthologies.

     In story called "Jury Nullification," Knowles features a pole dancer named Wiggles Operandi who murders her boss who was the owner of the nightclub. The victim, Basil Pompay, after doing five years at the state prison in Moundsville, West Virginia for forcible rape, had re-named himself Incarceration Jones. Operandi, after dispatching Jones by lacing his beer with anti-freeze, forges a handwritten will leaving his entire estate to her. As could be expected in a Knowles crime plot, the clueless authorities mishandle the case by allowing for Jones' cremation without an autopsy or toxicological inquiry. Jones' son, a first rate degenerate like his deceased father, contests the holograph will. At the probate hearing, the son presents three ex-FBI handwriting experts who declare the will a total forgery. The jury, by finding for Operandi, ignore the overwhelming question document evidence. The jurors obviously wanted to deny the son his father's estate. As is often the case in Knowles' work, the villain emerges victorious at the expense of justice.

      In Knowles' other anthologized short story, the protagonist, an ex-banjo player named Sherlock Poy, murders his mother and runs her corpse though a rented, commercial grade wood chipper. In "No Body, No Foul," after spraying Mamma Poy into the Ohio River, Sherlock begins cashing her Social Security checks. Without a body, detectives who suspected that the missing Helen Poy had been murdered, beat a confession out of Sherlock. As a result, the local prosecutor has no choice but to dismiss the case on Fifth Amendment grounds. Sherlock, cashing in on his new found infamy, takes up the banjo again and records a flash-in-the-pan hit called, "The Mamma Poy Wood Chipper Blues." Typical Knowles.

     In a short story called, "No Good Deed," Knowles shows his softer side by portraying a beloved, aging professor battling dementia. Several of the professor's favorite students commit minor crimes in helping him disguise his growing disability. When the professor's worsening condition can no longer be covered up, the students who helped him are identified and expelled from college. Shortly thereafter, the distraught professor commits suicide by throwing himself off the campus clock tower. In the professor's suicide note, addressed to college president Dr. Fenton Kitch, he wrote: "Life is a tiny island of happiness in a vast sea of pain and suffering. Life's greatest gift is death. Have a nice day." Thornton Knowles was not a fan of the happy ending.

      Knowles also placed a handful of his short stories with an obscure mystery digest called Crime Stories. Many of these pieces, with plots that bordered on the outlandish, had been rejected by the major publications in the genre. For example, one of these stories featured a retired drivers education teacher named Wally Persay who used a frozen leg of lamb to beat to death his estranged wife, Mary Cacophony-Persay. To throw investigators off his trail, Wally cooks and eats the murder weapon. Notwithstanding his efforts to outfox the police, Wally is arrested and charged with first-degree murder. When asked by the judge how he pleaded, Wally says, "Your honor, I plead not guilty by reason of my deceased wife's insanity." Knowles called this piece, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

      While appearing on a panel at a Mystery Writer's of America convention in Pittsburgh, a fan asked Knowles why none of his short stories and novels included people of color. Taken back with the question, and implied criticism, Knowles simply said, "I write what I know." A month later, Knowles submitted a short story that featured a black protagonist named La' Troit Johnson who marries an Asian woman for her money. The wife, a year after the wedding, dies after consuming a cup of coffee laced with arsenic. The police arrest La' Troit and beat a false confession out of him.  Although the death is eventually ruled a suicide, La' Troit, embittered by his cruel treatment at the hands of his interrogators, murders an innocent cop. Pure Knowles.

      While he wasn't a full-blown recluse, Knowles lived a life that was apart and alone. He frequently voiced his disdain for "literary media whores" like Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal who turned themselves into television personalities. Knowles wanted recognition for his writing, but not himself. He didn't get either.

     Knowles, never married, died alone on March 31, 1998 in a small hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He died penniless, embittered, and forgotten. Thirty years earlier, at a psychology conference, he had submitted a paper called "Accelerated Self-Loathing" based on the theory that as people age they increasingly hate themselves. He agued that it made facing death a bit easier. He died at age 67, perhaps a victim of his own syndrome.

     In the spring of 2016, former student Dr. Leona Hickam, a Pittsburgh area psychologist, attempted to resuscitate Knowles' literary reputation and legacy by petitioning the West Virginia Council of the Arts to posthumously nominate him for its annual lifetime achievement Mountain Voices Award. The council, without comment, declined. Perhaps the council had been influenced by Knowles' often expressed disdain for literary awards and the authors who won them. In 1976, when J.C. Pancake was named West Virginia's Poet Laureate, Knowles reportedly, and famously, suggested that in the future, when looking for a poet to represent the state, judges should consider poets from Pennsylvania and Ohio. This did not sit well.

     To further alienate West Virginians eager to improve the state's image, Knowles, when speaking at a Rotary Club meeting in Charleston, said he had enjoyed growing up in a state where everyone was below average. When that joke flopped, Knowles further shocked his audience by noting that the top student in his high school class graduated with a C average. And it got worse. According to Knowles, in choosing a homecoming queen, his class voted in a girl from another school. The Rotary Club, an organization steeped in civic boosterism, was not the venue for Knowles' brand of irreverent humor. In fact, few venues were.

   Under the circumstances, it will take an enormous effort and the passage of a lot of time before anyone will be able to successfully rescue Thornton P. Knowles from literary obscurity. Jane Fonda has a better chance of winning the Congressional Metal of Honor.

A 1980 Short Story by Thornton P. Knowles

                              The Devil in Booger Hollow

                                                 By

                                   Thornton P. Knowles

                                                 1                   

     Growing up in suburban Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, James Sinclair couldn't think of a job he either could do or want to do. He could never be a physician, a lawyer, or even a school teacher. He didn't want to be a salesman like his father, work in a store, a factory, an office, or on a construction site. So, after high school he joined the Army and served a tour in Vietnam as a military police officer. 

     Following his discharge from the Army in 1970, James acquired a job as an investigator for a divorce lawyer in Charleston. He spent the next couple of years tailing cheating spouses, peeking into windows, taking surveillance photographs and digging up dirt on behalf of his employer's clients. This experience confirmed his already low opinion of mankind. James' employment history with the lawyer would have been spotless had he not, while in a tree, dropped the firm's high speed camera. His parents, who wanted him in college, voiced their disgust at his line of work. A low, filthy business he father called it. As a boy Jame sought their approval but eventually became indifferent to them and their expectations. They would have to live with their disappointment.  

     As a high school student James was at best mediocre. He considered his teachers boring and tuned them out. He daydreamed his way to his high school graduation and couldn't imagine four more years trapped in a classroom listening to lectures on subjects that meant nothing to him. He wasn't interested in higher math, science, economics, foreign language, history, or literature. The same was true of sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Perhaps that was his problem, nothing interested or excited him, including sports. Why would he go to a football game and root for one team over another? 

     A young English teacher named Misty Dawn once scolded James for not having "school spirit." He informed Miss Dawn that the concept of sports fandom was as foreign to him as quantum physics. His chemistry teacher, Mr. Boggs, believed that intelligence could be measured by how fast one's hair grew. Although the man was certifiably mad, James considered Mr. Boggs the most interesting person in the building. His best high school memory didn't come from the prom or a championship game, but when Miss Lane, his 62-year-old French teacher stripped naked in front of the class while singing Frere Jacques. After seeing more than he wanted, James never saw this teacher again. The young woman who replaced her had a habit of spitting when she talked. High school memories. 

     James often wondered if other people found life as absurd as he did. In church he was told that God put each person on earth for a reason. If that were true He must be depressed as hell.  

     Among his classmates, and later fellow soldiers, James Sinclair was alone and apart. Although he wasn't bad looking, his lack of charm and distaste of group activities made him unattractive to girls. He wasn't fun. Because he didn't foresee marriage, children, home ownership, a high paying job, or any of the other things middle class people look forward to, James had no vision of his future. While he wasn't an enthusiastic, ambitious "full of life" person, low expectations kept him from being depressed. He had no ups and therefore no downs. Life was simply a day-to-day existence, a calendar with the days he had lived crossed off. 

     In 1973, the 23-year-old applied for and received a West Virginia private investigator's license. He qualified because he was over 21, had a high school degree, a valid West Virginia driver's license, and no criminal record. The fact he didn't have investigative training or much experience in the field didn't disqualify him from acquiring the license. He figured his inability to personally connect with people made him dispassionate and rational, investigative assets.

     As a private investigator just starting out, James barely made enough money to pay for his rent, car expenses, food and yellow page listing. He couldn't afford an office, so he met his clients in their homes or at a popular coffee shop downtown. If business didn't pick up soon he'd find something else. Although as a teenager he had read a couple of Perry Mason novels and watched "Dragnet" on TV, it wasn't as though he'd spent his childhood dreaming of becoming a private eye. 


                                                      2 


     On May 3, 1974, P. I. Sinclair received an important telephone call. A woman named Bailey Collins wanted a private eye to find her missing 28-year-old daughter. Mrs. Collins and her husband, residents of Clay County 50 miles southeast of Charleston, had raised enough money from friends and family to afford, for at least a couple of months, a private investigator. 

     Mr. and Mrs. Collins lived in a farm house down the road from a village called Booger Hollow. The backcountry community featured a Pentecostal church, a feed store, an abandoned movie theater, a used car lot, a service station/general store, a cluster of modest homes, and the Blue Moon Estates trailer court. The only traffic light in town hadn't functioned since 1960. The Lykes Funeral Home stood as the most impressive structure in town. In Booger Hollow, one had to die in order to move a few rungs up the real estate ladder. 

     Seated at the kitchen table, P. I. Sinclair listened as Mrs. Collins, with her husband looking on, provided him with the background information he would need to begin his inquiry into their only daughter's disappearance. 

     Three years earlier, Clystine Bailey Collins, described by her mother as "plain, unworldly, and sweet," came under the spell of the 50-year-old pastor of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church. Pastor Cletus Todd hired Clystine to work as a house cleaner, church janitor, and when necessary, to help out in the church kitchen. A few months after taking the job, Clystine joined the church, and shortly after that, against her parents' wishes, married the preacher. 

     James Sinclair didn't know anything about the Apostolic Pentecostal church. He wasn't interested in religion. His Presbyterian parents forced him as a youngster to attend Sunday school and church where they pumped Jesus into him like air into an inflatable raft. In his late teens, the raft developed a leak and collapsed. James hadn't stepped inside a church since. Although he found religion off putting, James didn't feel he was a bad person. To be religious one had to belong. Perhaps the reason people were drawn to church was the exact reason he wasn't. He couldn't stand the togetherness, what church people called fellowship. The group singing made him especially uncomfortable. All the hymns sounded alike and he didn't see the point of people making bad music together.   

     Addressing Mrs. Collins, James said, "On the phone you said Clystine went missing on Saturday, April 20."

     "Yes, Pastor Todd called us that evening around eight. He said he had been out of town. When he returned she wasn't home, or at work. He asked if she was with us, or if we knew where she was."

     "Did he seem upset, worried?"

     "No, not at all."

     "Where do they live?" 

     "In that big brick house next to the church."

     "When did the pastor report Clystine missing?"

     "He didn't."

     "Why not?"

     "He said she had left him. Walked out. He figured she had met some man where she works."

     "Where is that?"

     "The Luck Lady, a restaurant up on Interstate 79."

     "Is that something your daughter would do? Run off with a man?"

     "Absolutely not. Clystine would never do anything like that. Never. Ask anyone who knows her."

     "Did you explain that to the pastor?"

     "Yes, of course."

     "What did he say?"

     "He claimed she had been acting strange, said the Devil must have gotten into her heart, something like that."

     "He blamed the Devil?"

     "Yes, it's always the Devil with those people--the pastor and his followers. I'm sure you've seen religious fanatics like them on Sunday morning television jumping up and down, rolling on the floor, and speaking in tongues. The preachers dance around like they are possessed. It's quite a show. The women in these churches don't cut their hair, wear dresses that go to their ankles, and never wear makeup. They all think they'll go to Hell if they touch a drop of alcohol, listen to non-church music, enjoy a movie, or play cards. And while they don't show it on TV, some of them handle rattle snakes."

     "What are the snakes for?"

     "I don't know, I guess they're like pets. They believe that rattlers won't bite handlers who are in good standing with Jesus. Religious snake handling is against the law in West Virginia, but they do it anyway. These people are not normal. Many of them are criminals."

     "Has anyone been bitten?" 

     "Probably, but we'd never know it."

     "How many people go to the Booger Hollow Church?"

     "Most of the folks around here belong. Maybe four hundred or so, including the cock-fighting crowd, the bootleggers, and the moonshiners. Some members are local bigwigs."

     "When your daughter went missing who did you report it to?"

     "Sheriff Terry Blankenship. But he wasn't interested."

     "Why not?"

     "Because he's a member of the church."

     "Do you think your daughter was unhappy?"

     "Yes. We're pretty sure she regretted marrying that man, being under his thumb. I don't think she knew what she was getting into when she joined his church--speaking in tongues and all of that. She didn't fit in with those people. Half the time the women go around barefoot. What do they have against shoes? Clystine was not a religious fanatic. She was a normal person who made a big mistake and regretted it. But she would never run off."

     It occurred to James that Clystine Todd's disappearance might be more than just a missing persons case. "Do you think the preacher knows where your daughter is? Do you suspect foul play?" he asked.

     "We don't know what to think. But we know that something is not right with the pastor and his church. Do you know about the pastor's first two wives?"  

     "No. The only thing I know is what you've told me."

     "They are dead."

     "How did they die?"

     "The first one, Maxine, committed suicide. Hanged herself. They found her in the church basement."

     "And the second?"

    " Poor woman broke her neck falling down a flight of steps."

     "Were the deaths investigated?" 

     "No. Who would investigate? The sheriff is in the church and we don't have a police department."

     "Surely autopsies were performed on the bodies to rule out foul play?"

     "No autopsies. Ralph Lykes, the funeral director who handled the arrangements was, and still is, a member of Pastor Todd's church. He's also the Clay County Coroner. They wasted no time in burying both women. Maxine, the one found hanging in the church basement, wasn't even made available for viewing. No church service either. Who knows if they even embalmed Maxine before putting her into the ground." Mrs. Collins appeared on the verge of breaking down. She reached for a tissue.

     James turned to Mr. Collins, "Sir, do you have anything to add?"

     "Call me John. We begged Clystine not to marry that guy. He took control of her life. We should have tried harder to save her."

     "Does Clystine have a car?"

     "Yes," answered Mr. Collins. "A 1960 Chevy Corvair. A piece of junk, but it was cheap. I'll get you the tag number." Mr. Collins rose from the table and left the kitchen. When he returned he handed James the car registration information and a photograph of his daughter. "Where will you start?" he asked.

     Trying to sound more professional and experienced than he was, James said, "In missing person investigations you start with law enforcement, but because the sheriff is so close to Pastor Todd, I don't see the point. I'll start with the preacher."

     "His office is in his house," Mrs. Collins said. "Do you want his phone number?"

     "No, I'll show up unannounced."


                                                   3                          


     The Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal church featured a large out of proportion cross that shot into the heavens from the flat roof of the cinderblock building that once housed a farm equipment sales and repair business. Two red, neon signs flashed on and off in the big windows flanking the front door. One blared: THE END IS NEAR and the other: GET RIGHT WITH JESUS. This was not Westminster Abby. 

     James parked his car in the lot in front of the church and walked to the large brick house next door. As he knocked on the door, James noticed the black 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood parked in the pastor's driveway. It was being waxed by a skinny young man with a ragged beard, pale skin, and homemade tattoos on both arms. The guy could have been a character in an Erskine Caldwell novel. James didn't imagine there were too many Cadillacs in Booger Hollow. The Lykes Funeral Home owned a couple, and the Pastor's vanity plates--DIED 4 U--were also a good fit for the funeral home's vehicles. The people of Booger Hollow who had never seen the inside a Caddy would get their first ride, albeit post mortem, in the funeral car. 

     A thin, middle-aged woman with gray hair to her waist, a long white dress and a long face answered the door to the pastor's house. Trying to hide his apprehension, James followed the towering women to a waiting room outside the preacher's office. He took a seat on an expensive leather sofa as the barefoot woman entered the pastor's office and closed the door. The only thing to read in the waiting room was a Bible that looked like the ones placed in motel rooms. James never understood the relationship between the Good Book and motels. Perhaps Bibles were planted in these rooms to ward off some of the sinful activities that took place there. As James thought about some of his divorce lawyer cases involving motel rooms, the pastor's office door opened and the long-faced lady stepped out. She gestured James into the inner sanctum, then departed. The first thing James noticed, or felt, when he entered the office was the pastor's plush, blood red carpet. 

     From behind his massive oak desk, Pastor Todd rose and extended a hand. The man was shockingly small. Although the preacher had a normal-sized head, it was much too big for his skinny neck and narrow shoulders. Some heavenly assembly worker had badly screwed up putting this man together. The pastor combed his jet black hair into a prodigious pompadour that added three inches to his height and accentuated his out of proportion head. He wore tight-fitting blue trousers and a pink dress shirt buttoned at the collar. Around his neck hung a chain that supported a silver cross that occupied most of his chest. Surrounded by award plaques, group photographs, and pictures of Jesus on and off the cross, the pastor asked, "What can I do for you young man?" His booming voice startled James who felt uncomfortable in his presence. He looked nothing like James had pictured. 

     The young investigator took a seat on the wooden chair that faced the desk. He was immediately distracted by the brass cross bolted onto the wall behind the pastor's head. How much did the thing weigh? Was there a factory somewhere that manufactured six-foot brass crosses? James wondered if in Rome the Pope, in his office, had the gold plated version. Tearing his eyes away from the cross, James said, "My name is James Sinclair. I'm a private investigator from Charleston. I'm here about your wife Clystine."

     "What about Clystine?" the pastor asked, placing a tiny hand on the leather Bible sitting on his desk. James wondered if this were the Bible he held above his head when he preached to his flock. If he dropped that book, slackers in the back pew would surely come to attention. If the Good Book landed on a snake--good-bye rattler.

      "As you know sir,  Clystine is missing. Her parents are worried."

     "And why is that any of your business?"

     "I've been hired to find her."

     "And you think I know where she is?" 

      "You're her husband."

     "She ran off. I have no idea where to or if she'll return. The poor woman hasn't been herself. Last week a member of our church saw her at work at the Lucky Lady truck stop. She was wearing lipstick--and her hair was styled. She was being friendly--flirting--with some man. Have you seen the skimpy outfits they make them wear?" 

     "Was this church member there on your behalf?"

     "He's a truck driver." The pastor's smile did not conceal his irritation. He obviously was not accustomed to being interrogated.

     "Why would Clystine run off without telling you? Unless of course she was afraid to."

     "If you find Clystine you can ask her that." The preacher leaned forward. With closed-set eyes he glared at the disrespectful young investigator.

     "If I find her?" James replied. 

     "Yes. And if you do, tell her that Jesus loves her. He forgives. Everyone here is praying for her."

     "Why aren't they looking for her?" James asked while trying to imagine himself telling someone that Jesus loved them. How would he know who Jesus loved or didn't love?

      "We will leave Clystine's fate to Him. God will determine if and when she comes home. It's out of our hands, all we can do is pray." The pastor leaned back in his chair looking quite pleased with himself. "And what about you, Mr. Sinclair?"

     "What about me?"

     "Have you found Jesus?"

     "I'm not looking for Jesus. Right now I'm looking for your wife."

     "Did godless college professors teach you to talk like that?" 

     "I didn't go to college," James replied. Now that the gloves were off, he asked, "What about you Pastor Todd, what college did you attend?" Before the preacher could answer, James said, "Let me guess--Oral Roberts University."

     "I was fifteen when the Lord called. There was no time for college." 

     "God called you? You picked up the phone and it was Him?"

     "Very funny. It's obvious your parents didn't bring you up in church."

     "Actually they did. They took me every Sunday."

     "And what church was that?"

     "United Presbyterian in Charleston."

     "Well that explains it."

     Instead of speaking up for his parents, or asking exactly how being a Presbyterian explained his religious cynicism, James decided to change the subject and ask the pastor about his deceased wives. "I understand," he said, "that in marriage you have been unfortunate."

     "What do you mean by that?" the pastor asked. He of course knew exactly what James meant. The question had caught him off guard. 

     "They died unexpectedly," James replied, imitating Sergeant Joe Friday in tone and brevity, thinking that watching every episode of "Dragnet" had paid off. 

     "My wives' deaths, young man, are a matter of public record. My first, Maxine, committed suicide. The poor woman gave up on Jesus. We did everything we could to cast the Devil out of her soul, but couldn't save her. Darlene, my second, fell down cellar steps and broke her neck. A terrible accident. She's now with God."

     "And Maxine? Where is she?"

     "You're a Presbyterian, you tell me," the pastor snapped.

     "Did you seek psychiatric help for Maxine? She must have been very depressed to have taken her own life?

     "We don't believe in psychiatrists or drugs. We believe in the healing power of Jesus. I also believe it's time for you to go. You are not welcome here. If you come snooping around again, I'll have you arrested. You can spend the night in the Clay County Jail." The pastor pushed a button under his desk and the long-faced woman suddenly appeared in the doorway. She must have been standing just outside. The preacher said, "Show this man out."  

     On his way to the door, James turned and said, "A night in the slammer is better than hanging in your basement at the end of a rope." James, who wasn't accustomed to exerting the energy it took to personally dislike people, surprised himself with his burst of anger. He did not like this man.

     Unfazed by the reference to his first wife's death, the pastor said, "I'm not kidding, do not come around here again. Consider that a warning."

     "Threatening the man looking for your wife is not very Christian," James said before closing the door behind him. 

     As James walked to his car, the bearded man polishing the preacher's new Cadillac looked up and said, "God be with you." 

     "Thanks," James replied. No one had ever said that to him in Charleston. This was a strange place, a culture he could never understand. And he was only sixty miles from his home. Perhaps as a private investigator he wouldn't be welcomed anywhere. He'd have to figure out if that mattered to him. Being an outsider was one thing, being unwelcome everywhere was another.


                                                       4


     The Lucky Lady Truck Stop and Restaurant sat within earshot of the traffic moving north and south on Interstate 79 eighteen miles north of Booger Hollow. A young woman in a frilly pink and white uniform who looked like a cross between a trainee nurse and a cocktail waitress, took his order. Her name tag identified her as Beverly. When Beverly returned with his coffee, James asked, "Could I have a word with you about a waitress named Clystine?"

      "I know Clystine," she said.

     "I'm James Sinclair, a private investigator."

     "I've never met a private investigator before. I've seen them on TV. Do you carry a gun?"

     "No."

     "Is Clystine in trouble?"

     "She's gone missing. Her parents hired me to find her."

     "I can't talk here," Beverly said. "I'll meet you over at McDonald's when I get off in an hour."

     As James waited in the McDonald's booth listening to the cars and trucks on Interstate 79, he wondered if the franchise had actually sold 15 billion burgers. If this were true, it was amazing there were any cows still alive. As he contemplated this attack on the bovine population, Beverly walked into McDonald's wearing her perky Lucky Lady uniform: the old meeting the new. 

     "We were not close," Beverly said. "Clystine kept to herself. After her shift she'd go straight home. I could tell though that something was bothering her. I think she was afraid." 

     "Of what?"

     "She didn't say, and I didn't ask, but I think she wanted to leave her husband. He's that wild preacher down in Booger Hollow." 

     "Yes, we've met. Did Clystine tell you she planned to leave the pastor?"

     "No, she didn't come out and say it. But she saw something at the church that disturbed her, something she was not supposed to see. When she told the preacher about it, he got angry, accused her of spying. Told her to mind her own business. She told me she was being followed by a couple of men from the church, that building with the big cross on the roof and the neon signs in the front windows."

     "Yes, I've seen it. It's hard to miss."

     "About two weeks ago Clystine stopped coming to work."

     "Do you know what she saw that was so disturbing?"

     "She didn't say, and I didn't press her. But it must have been something pretty scary."

     "At the truck stop, was Clystine friendly with any of the customers? Anyone special? A man perhaps?"

     "No. She was nice to everyone, but she didn't flirt."

     "Have you spoken to anyone else about Clystine?"

     "No." 

     "To your knowledge, has anyone from the church been to the truck stop asking about her?"

     "No."

     "Did she talk much about the church?"

     "Not much. But I've heard rumors. The men treat their wives and daughters like slaves. I never asked Clystine about that. She did tell me she gave everything she earned over to the church. One time I had to lend her gas money to get home. I think her being missing has something to do with the husband and that church. Her parents have every right to be worried." 

     "Have you heard anything about the pastor's previous marriages?"

     "I don't know anything about that. Sorry. I hope you're not going to tell anyone what I have told you. I don't want to get mixed up with those people. They scare me."

     "They will never know," James said.

     "Clystine did not run off with another man. I don't believe she ran off, period. Find her, she's a nice person." 


                                                5


      While James didn't have a history of finding missing persons or uncovering evidence of criminal wrongdoing, his experience as a divorce attorney's investigator had taught him how to follow people. Having been banned from Pastor Todd's house had piqued his curiosity about what might go on there at night. 

     Shortly after dark on a moonless May evening, James parked his 1966 Plymouth Fury in the alley alongside the feed store across the street from the pastor's house. At ten o'clock, a girl who looked to be in her early teens wearing a long, loose-fitting dress stepped out of the dwelling. She was followed by the bearded man James had seen waxing the preacher's car on his first and last visit to the pastor's home. He carried a small suitcase. A few seconds later, Pastor Todd, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, appeared under the light above the door. He handed the skinny man a white envelope then re-entered the house. 

      The man who had informed James that God loved him, opened the Cadillac's rear passenger door for the girl. He climbed in behind the wheel, backed onto street, and headed west. 

     About a half mile east of downtown Charleston, the Cadillac turned onto the parking lot of the Honeysuckle Inn. James immediately recognized the place. Once, when he he worked for the divorce lawyer he followed a married accountant to the one-story motel. You could book a room for $19.95 a Nite and Pets Were Welcome. The accountant didn't have a pet, but was accompanied by a 19-year-old hooker named Kitty. 

     From the street, James watched the Cadillac pull up alongside a green Buick Roadmaster parked facing Room 15. The bearded driver alighted from the Caddy and opened the back car door for the girl. A chunky middle-aged woman with short gray hair came out of Room 15. The Cadillac driver handed this woman the girl's small suitcase and the white envelope from Pastor Todd. He returned to the vehicle as the girl and the woman entered the motel room. 

     James found a parking spot that afforded a good view. He glanced at his watch: it was eleven forty-five. Rather than drive through the parking lot and jot down the Buick's license plate, James decided to stay put. He couldn't risk being made by the man in the preacher's Caddy. 

     At two-thirty in the morning, the motel door opened. The woman stepped out and waved the Cadillac driver into the room. A minute later, the man came out carrying the girl and her suitcase. She had on a blue, terrycloth robe and a pair of white slippers. The bearded man carefully placed the girl onto the back seat then gently closed the door. James watched as the Cadillac backed away from the motel, pulled onto the street, and headed east toward Booger Hollow.

     James decided to wait for the woman even if he had to spend the night in the car. As it turned out, it was a short wait. The gray haired woman, carrying a small leather satchel and a full laundry bag, came out of the room. She placed the satchel on the front passenger's seat and the laundry bag into the trunk. She re-entered Room 15 and returned carrying what looked like a portable message table she placed into the trunk. She closed the lid, climbed into the Buick, and backed away from the Honeysuckle Inn. 

     Since traffic was light this time of night, James followed at a distance. At a traffic light in downtown Charleston he jotted down the Buick's license number. James followed the woman to an upscale apartment complex on the north side of the city. She pulled into the gated parking lot and entered the building through a side door.  

     The next day, a paralegal who worked for James' former employer submitted the Buick's license number to a contact he had at the Motor Vehicle Department. The car was registered to a Dr. Joyce Petit, an Obstetrician with offices in a large suburban medical center. 

     James had witnessed a clandestine abortion, something that had not been on his list of things that went on at the Honeysuckle Inn. 

     

                                                  6


     In Clay, West Virginia, a woman at the Clay County Court House directed James to the marriage and divorce records as well as to where they kept the certificates of death. According to these documents, Pastor Cletus Todd married his second wife, Darlene nee Williams, on June 6, 1960 when he was 44 and she was 26. Darlene died on November 12, 1964. According to her death certificate she died from a fall in her home. James found no record of a coroner's inquest into her sudden and violent death. The funeral home owned by Clay County Coroner Ralph Lykes handled the burial arrangements. The couple had been childless. James made a copy of Darlene's obituary.

     The pastor married Maxine, nee Palmer, on June 4, 1954. The groom was 42 and his bride 24. On October 9, 1958, a member of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church found Maxine hanging from a rope above an overturned chair in the church basement. According to Coroner Lykes, Maxine Todd had committed suicide. She was buried without a viewing or church service. While autopsies are almost aways performed in cases of death by hanging, there was no such procedure in Maxine Todd's case. Since Coroner Lykes was a mortician and not a forensic pathologist, his cause and manner of death ruling was meaningless. Maxine's obituary was brief and devoid of biographical information. It was as though she had never lived. 

     While he was in the court house, James decided to check the criminal convictions records to see if Cletus Todd had ever been in trouble with the law. As it turned out, he had. In 1950 he was convicted of criminal trespass. James wondered if he had been caught peeping into someone's window. Pastor Todd was convicted two years later of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Because the conviction records did not include details of the offenses, James could only speculate about the nature of Pastor Todd's crimes. The presiding judge, now deceased, had sentenced the preacher to small fines. The police files containing the details of the pastor's crimes were not available to a private investigator who didn't have a friend on the force. James walked out of the court house feeling powerless and empty handed.

     The parents of Pastor Todd's second wife Darlene had agreed to meet P. I. Sinclair at the Whippy Dip Custard Stand down the road from their home in Jackson Bend, a village a few miles east of the Clay County Court House. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were already there when James pulled into the Whippy Dip parking lot. They were seated at a picnic table and did not look eager to make his acquaintance. Both were longtime members of the Booger Hollow Church, and considered Pastor Todd second only to Jesus Christ himself, and a close second at that.

     Following introductions, Mrs. Williams asked James why, in looking for the pastor's run-a-way wife, he was interested in the details of their daughter's death. Taken back by the question, James muttered something about covering all the bases. Mr. Williams, the owner of a used car lot in Jackson Bend, said, "You had a lot of nerve showing up at the church the other day and harassing Pastor Todd. Now you're bothering us about our deceased daughter."

     "I'm sorry but I wasn't trying to harass the pastor. I'm conducting an investigation into the whereabouts of his wife. I thought he would be pleased that someone was looking for her. Apparently he wasn't."

      Mr. Williams rose to his feet, he was tall and quite fat. "Stay away from Pastor Todd. The poor man has suffered enough. You are not welcome here."

      James thanked Mr. and Mrs. Williams for their time, backed out of the Whippy Dip parking lot, pointed his car in the direction of Charleston, and stepped on the gas. Why were these people so hostile? What were they hiding? What were they afraid of?


                                                   7


     A few days after the fiasco at the custard stand, P. I. Sinclair was back in Booger Hollow, this time speaking to Charlene Palmer, the mother of Pastor Todd's first wife Maxine. Charlene resided in a mobile home in Blue Moon Estates, a trailer court on the southern edge of town. In the 1950's the trailer court had been a drive-in theater of the same name. Mrs. Palmer and her husband Rolland had left Pastor Todd's church in 1958 shortly after Maxine's death. Mr. Palmer died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 54. According to his wife, he died believing that his daughter had been murdered. Mrs. Palmer looked frail and in poor health. The tiny woman sat on a threadbare sofa amid family photographs and a couple of Mr. Palmer's bowling trophies. James felt uncomfortable sitting in the living room of her rusty mobile home. He felt like an intruder invading the poor woman's privacy. This was an aspect of the job--privacy invasion--he'd have to get used to. "Do you share your husband's belief regarding Maxine's death?" he asked.

     "I do,"she said. "Pastor Todd told us Maxine had come under the spell of the Devil. Those were his words. This was a lie. Maxine loved Christ. She never suffered depression and had no history of mental illness. She would never take her life and the pastor knew it. We said this to the sheriff and the county coroner, people we knew from church. They assured us Maxine hanged herself. How did they know that? There was no investigation. We asked for an autopsy of Maxine's body, but Pastor Todd forbade it. He said Maxine wasn't meeting God with her internal organs stuffed into a bag. But we knew that wasn't the reason he didn't want an autopsy. Besides, if she killed herself, she wouldn't be meeting God." 

     "What do you think happened to Maxine?"

     "She saw something she wasn't supposed to. Someone in the church made sure she didn't go to the police."

     "Did she know Sheriff Blankenship couldn't be trusted?"

     "Yes, but she could have gone to the state police."

     "Did she tell you what she saw?"

     "Yes. She unexpectedly walked into the room where they store hymn books, donation baskets and other church things. She caught two men with a young girl."

     "What were they doing?"

      "What do you think?"

     "When you say young--"

     "Eleven or twelve."

     "Did Maxine know the child?"

     "If she did she didn't say."

     "Who were the men?"

     "She didn't say. She said it would be better if we didn't know."

     "After walking in on the men and the girl what did Maxine do?"

     "She ran back to the house and when Pastor Todd came home she told him what she saw."

     "And?"

     "He was angry--at her! He warned her not to spread rumors about the church. He would take care of it himself. Of course he didn't and never intended to."

     "Why?"

     "Because he was involved."

     "Are you saying Pastor Todd was sexually abusing girls?"

     "Either that or he was procuring them for members of the church."

     "When did Maxine tell you about about this?"

     "About a week after it happened. Ten days later she was dead."

     "Did you consider moving after that?"

     "No, this was our home. Neither of us had lived anywhere else. I still have friends here, good people. Here in Clay County we are not the most sophisticated people in the world, but we're not all hicks. A lot of us come from humble beginnings, myself included. I grew up on a small farm not far from here. My dad was born at home and he died at home. He was 55 and had never stepped out of Clay County. He didn't trust doctors and couldn't believe that to hunt, fish or drive a car you had to get a license. My father didn't go beyond sixth grade and even today very few kids around here go to college. People from the city look down on us. Why would they care about my daughter or Clystine Todd? That's just the way it is. You should understand that."

     "I'm from the city and didn't go to college. I care about what happened to your daughter and Clystine."

     "Do you really? Or are you just paid to care?"

     "I'm being paid but I want to find Clystine Todd and in the process expose her husband. And if someone murdered your daughter that person should go to prison." 

     "Okay then. There is something else you should know."

     "What?"

     "Six months ago a woman from Charleston called. She and her parents belonged to the Booger Hollow church when Maxine died. When this woman was twelve her family left the area, moved to Charleston. She knew that Clystine Todd's parents had reported her missing. She called to tell me something, something she had wanted me to know for a long time."

     "What?"

     "For two years several men in the Booger Hollow Church had sexually molested her. Pastor Todd knew about it and did nothing."

     "How did he know?"

     "After it first happened she went to him. He told her it was okay, said she was serving the church, doing God's work. If she told anyone about her relationship with these men she and her folks would go to Hell. She eventually told her parents. That's when they moved to Charleston."

     "Why didn't her parents report this to the state police?"

     "Her parents were ashamed. They were also afraid the police wouldn't believe them. The word of a kid against so-called men of God. Can you blame them?"

     "I guess not. Mrs. Palmer, did this woman give you her name?"

     "Yes."

     "Do you think she would talk to me?"

     "I don't know, but it wouldn't hurt to try."


                                                8


          Tilly McClure worked at the public library in downtown Charleston. She had agreed to meet P. I. Sinclair at a nearby coffee shop. After a bit of small talk, James asked Tilly McClure why she had confided in Mrs. Palmer about what had happened to her as a child in the Booger Hollow Church. 

     "I wanted Mrs. Palmer to know that if her daughter had killed herself, it was probably because of what she had seen when she walked into the church supply room. Maxine witnessed me being sexually abused by two men."

     Surprised by the sudden straightforwardness of Tilly McClure's revelation, James wasn't sure what to say. "I see," he managed.

     "Don't you believe me?"

     "I believe you. I just wasn't expecting that," he replied. "How did Mrs. Palmer respond to your revelation?"

     "She cried, then thanked me. She wanted me to know that Maxine did not kill herself. She was emphatic about that."

     "Do you believe Maxine committed suicide?"

     "Are you asking if I think she was murdered?"

     "Yes."

     "I don't know. If she was murdered I wouldn't be surprised. Those people--you have no idea."

     "Those people?"

     "Pastor Cletus Todd and his followers. They ruined my life. I flunked out of college and every boyfriend I've ever had--and there haven't been many--left me. And for good reason. I can't hold a job for more than a few months. I drink too much and the pills don't help. I'm depressed, single, and live with my aunt. I don't even own a car. The worst part is, I'm afraid of everyone. I don't know who to trust." 

     James didn't know what to say except, "Okay."

     "Can I trust you?"

     "Yes. You don't have to be afraid of me. I believe Pastor Todd and his people are evil and have to be stopped. Who knows how many other lives they ruined. I'm single, don't have a girlfriend and can barely afford a car. My parents think I'm a failure, a misfit. I don't trust people either and suspect I'm in the wrong business."

     "You seem different than other men."

     "If I'm different it's because I am extremely ordinary."

     She smiled. "That's funny."

     "I'm afraid it's true."

     "I'd love to be ordinary. Lucky you."

     "Would you mind telling me how Pastor Todd groomed you for sexual abuse?"

     "Paster Todd visited our youth camp when I was twelve. He pulled me aside and said he had been watching me, said I was special, a future church leader. He gave me little gifts, religious trinkets and the like. I was flattered. Eventually he introduced me to one of his righthand men, said this man would teach me about Christian leadership. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew several men were having their way with me. I kept asking myself--why me? Was this my fault?"

     "Those men were sex offenders, degenerates. You were a victim."

     "I keep telling myself that. But it doesn't help. They were respected members of the church."

     "Can you identify these men?"

     "Sheriff Terry Blankenship and Coroner Ralph Lykes. And there were other men I didn't know."

     "Are you aware that Blankenship and Lykes are still in power, still leaders in Pastor Todd's church?"

     "Yes. And still abusing girls," Tilly added. 

     "Did Pastor Todd sexually abuse you?"

     "No, but he made it possible and kept telling me that if I made accusations no one, not even my parents, would believe me. I would burn in Hell. I believed him. Why was I was so stupid? I should have exposed them all."

     "You were a child. They were adults. But if you want you could expose them now. You have the power do that."

     "They raped me 17 years ago. The police can't do a thing, it's too late. The people at the church will call me a drunk and a mental case, and they would be right. The entire church will be against me. Anyway, who would I report this to?"

     "You can go public. I know a crime reporter with the Charleston Gazette. He will tell your story."

     "What good would that do?"

     "It might inspire other women to come forward, more recent victims. It might lead to criminal charges, convictions, and the end of the abuse. Will you at least consider it?"

     "I'll do it. What do I have to lose?"

     "Are you sure? It could become unpleasant."

     "I know all about unpleasant. Let's do it."


                                             9


         Under the headline: CHILD SEX ABUSE AT BOOGER HOLLOW CHURCH ALLEGED, the Charleston Gazette, in June 1974, published Tilly McClure's story without specifically naming the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church, Pastor Cletus Todd, Sheriff Blankenship or Coroner Lykes. Although the church and the alleged sex offenders were not named, everybody in Booger Hollow knew who was being accused. For that reason, Pastor Todd, ignoring his attorney's advice, held a press conference in front of the church. Behind him stood a dozen or so preachers from churches around the area. In front of him were several television cameras and a couple of print reporters. Pastor Todd announced that he intended to sue the newspaper, the reporter, and Tilly McClure for libel, slander, and defamation. Because a libel trial would expose him and his church's sex offenders, this was a hollow threat. Nevertheless, being the performer that he was, the threat sounded real. In his most self-righteous voice, Pastor Todd pleaded with the members of his vilified church to prey for his accuser, a woman he described as troubled and Devil-possessed. While the little man with the wrong-sized head and flamboyant hair attacked Tilly McClure's character and mental stability, the preachers standing behind him nodded in agreement, filling the air with amens and an occasional hallelujah. Pastor Todd's presentation was well received by members of his congregation, but more than a few TV viewers in Charleston considered it a shameful, Bible-thumping spectacle. It reminded some of a scene out of "Night of the Hunter," a religious/horror film set in Moundsville, West Virginia. Moreover, the press conference generated, in some circles, sympathy for Tilly McClure.   

     The day following Pastor Todd's sanctimonious press conference where he repeatedly attacked Tilly McClure's mental soundness and morality, three Charleston television crews were stationed on the sidewalk outside her residence. Afraid to leave the house, Tilly missed another day's work. By that evening, the TV people were gone. The Booger Hollow Church scandal was already old news, pushed aside by a hotel fire in downtown Charleston. 

     Worried about the brave and fragile woman who had trusted him with her story, James tried several times to call her at home. No one picked up, which, under the circumstances, was not surprising. Three days later, James called the library and was told that Miss McClure had been absent from work and had been terminated.

     On the morning of June 15, 1974, twelve days after Pastor Todd's Booger Hollow press conference spectacle, James turned on his television and was stunned by the news: Tilly McClure was dead. 

     The previous evening Tilly McClure's aunt had returned home to find her niece unresponsive on the bathroom floor lying next to a bottle that contained pills proscribed to treat her depression. While the autopsy and toxicological inquiries had not been completed, the presumed manner of death was either suicide or accidental overdose. James felt certain it was the former. 

     Overcome by guilt and anger the dispassionate private investigator wept.


                                                   10


     Tilly McClure's death was not totally in vain. The news of her suicide prompted three current members of the Booger Hollow Church to file reports with the West Virginia State Police alleging that within the past two years members of Pastor Todd's congregation had sexually molested their pre-teen daughters. This time Pastor Todd listened to his attorney and did not hold a press conference. 

     In January 1975, following a brief investigation, state troopers arrested Pastor Cletus Todd, Sheriff Terry Blankenship, County Coroner Ralph Lykes, and two other members of the Booger Hollow church. The Clay County District Attorney charged Pastor Todd with three counts of facilitating the sexual abuse of a minor. The other men faced charges of felony rape of a minor. They pleaded not guilty and were released on bond. 

     The sheriff, the coroner, and the other two members of the church, in March 1975, pleaded guilty to the rape charges. As part of their plea agreements the defendants promised to testify against Pastor Todd. In return for their cooperation the serial rapists were each sentenced to ten years in prison. 

     In September 1975, the Clay County District Attorney allowed Pastor Todd to plead guilty to the lesser charge of child endangerment. At his January 1976 sentence hearing several Pentecostal preachers took the stand and vouched for his good character and standing in the community. No one came forward on behalf of the rape victims. The judge sentenced Cletus Todd to 18 months to be served at the the state prison in Moundsville. Members of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church seated in the courtroom cheered and praised the Lord when the judge handed down the lenient sentence. James Sinclair, sitting in the back of the room, lowered his head but not in preyer. When the news reached the pastor's supporters outside of the courthouse they roared in glee, raised their hands and thanked the Lord.

     Following the failure of the Clay County criminal justice system to adequately punish Pastor Todd, James reached out to John and Bailey Collins. He hoped to continue his search for Clystine and expressed confidence he could find her. When he did find her the criminal justice system might not be finished with Pastor Todd. Mr. and Mrs. Collins informed James they could no longer afford his services. The money for the missing persons investigation had been spent, and they couldn't raise more. Mrs. Collins said she knew that James had done his best and thanked him for his service. She would give him a high recommendation. She and Mr. Collins would try to console themselves with the image of their daughter living far away in a suburban home with a decent man and a child. Perhaps some day Clystine would call and invite them for a visit. That hope was all they had.

     In April 1976, disheartened by his failure to find Clystine Todd, James Sinclair left the private detective business. He simply wasn't cut out for that kind of work. He did, however, learn something about himself: he had the capacity to connect with people. That spring James left Charleston and settled in Wheeling, West Virginia where he acquired a job driving a city bus, an occupation that suited him perfectly. He still maintained an arm's length relationship with his parents, but met an introverted young woman he liked. Her name was Anna. She played the banjo and enjoyed blue grass music. They met at a K-Mart store where she worked as a cashier. Like him, Anna was a lapsed Presbyterian turned off by holly rollers and Bible thumpers.

     While James often thought about Clystine Todd, he never talked about her case. He kept a photograph of Clystine in his wallet in the event she climbed aboard his bus one day. James lost touch with Clystine's parents and rarely thought about Pastor Todd and the Booger Hollow Church. He'd closed the book on that part of his past. As for negative thoughts about religion in general, he tried to put that behind him as well. If people wanted to have faith in something bigger than themselves, that was up to them. It was none of his business what other people believed or didn't believe.     

      For the first time in his life James felt he had a future worth living.


                                          11 


     After serving eighteen months in the Moundsville State Penitentiary where he had started a prison ministry, Pastor Todd returned to Booger Hollow. He was greeted at the church by a throng of gleeful followers gathered to celebrate the great man's homecoming. Standing beneath a banner that read: THANK GOD FOR PASTOR TODD, the little preacher with the improper head and booming voice took the opportunity to thank the Lord, forgive his accusers, and promise to rebuild the church into a powerful religious movement. He would not only throw the Devil out of Clay County, he'd make the entire state Devil-free. Hallelujah! 

     On a sunny day in August 1977, James Sinclair, while driving his bus down Wheeling's Chicken Neck Hill, lost control of the vehicle. The bus crashed into several on-coming cars, swerved into a telephone pole, flipped onto its roof and slid to the bottom of the hill where it exploded and burst into flames. Paramedics pronounced the former private investigator and four of his passengers dead at the scene. Two others died in the crash. James Sinclair was 27. Apparently Pastor Todd had not gotten around to casting the Devil out of Wheeling, West Virginia. 

     As members of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church of Booger Hollow continued to rejoice in the resurrection Pastor Cletus Todd, Clystine Todd's body floated inside her Chevy Corvair as it sat on the bottom of a remote, Clay County pond. When the car plunged into the murky water, she was already dead. She had died of asphyxia, but not from drowning. The abrasions on her neck revealed she had been manually strangled. Unless a boy out for a swim discovered the car and its occupant, the story of Clystine Tood's death would remain untold, and the person responsible, unpunished. Moreover, as long as the details of her abduction and murder remained a mystery, the work of James Sinclair would go unrecognized, and the Devil in Booger Hollow would continue preaching the Gospel, abusing girls, and murdering his wives.  

"The Ghost": A 1974 Short Story by Thornton P. Knowles

                                            The Ghost
                                                  by
                                     Thornton P. Knowles
                                                                       
                                                   1

       I kill people for money. I've been doing it for years and it never gets old. I like to think I'm not your ordinary hitman. I'm not a drug-addled dimwit, an amateur who gets caught. I'm imaginative and approach my work as a professional. If I may be so bold, I'm a master in the art of murder-for-hire. You won't see my work in a museum or an art gallery, you'll find it in the files of unsolved homicide cases. If I have anything to do with it, my art will remain anonymous.

     My "clients" are rich guys who cheated on their wives and find themselves up to their eyeballs in divorce attorneys. Some of these men are desperate to protect their wealth from women they consider greedy and undeserving, wives they have come to hate and fear. They entertain thoughts of violent death. A few of them harbor fantasies of torture and humiliation. They are consumed by hate and are easy to manipulate. These larger-than-life sociopaths, men who had attracted their wives with their wealth and bravado, are no longer in control of their fates or their emotions.

     My clients don't find me. I find them. I get leads from newspaper gossip columns and stories in the tabloids. Each job is different, so I use various ploys and techniques to enter my future client's life. This is where I have to be careful. I make sure I'm not photographed with the guy, always use a fake name, and employ a variety of disguises. Fingerprints are not a problem because I've never been arrested. I also try to stay clear of my target's friends and associates. When I'm with him, usually in private, I never bring up the subject of his wife or the divorce. At least not directly. I wait for him to suggest what I hope he'll suggest, and act a little shocked when he does."Okay, I'll do it," I say. "I'll take the risk, but it won't be cheap."

     My demands are simple and firm: his wife's death will cost fifty thousand, upfront and in cash. The response is usually the same: "That's too much, no way!" I expect this reaction, these men didn't get rich by being generous. I don't budge, and remind Mr. Moneybags that if he doesn't cough-up the dough, he'll lose half his estate. Take it or leave it. He usually takes it. Nothing is put on paper. I tell him I don't want hand-drawn maps, phone numbers, descriptions, license plate number, things like that. In this business, contracts are oral, and there can be no physical evidence.

     At a remote spot of my choosing, we sit in his car. He hands me the bills, often in a paper bag. Before he asks: "When are you going to do it? Will you make it look like an accident?" I shoot a bullet into his ear. Always the head because there's little bleeding. I don't like blood. For the gun, a piece once owned by a deceased mugger--a story for another time--I find a river or a lake. Like I say, no physical evidence.

    I kill the man who hired me because it makes no sense to kill his wife. If I kill her, the police will suspect him, and he could roll over on me. Sometimes, the cops actually suspect the wife of having my client killed. The investigation, of course, dies on the vine, and the murder disappears into the books as unsolved. By then, I'm working on my next project.

     By definition I'm a "serial killer," but I don't see myself in that light. Those men are psychopaths. I don't take a person's life for sex, excitement, or some kind of psychological compulsion. I do it for a reason--money. I don't have to kill, I chose to. Rather than a psychopathic killer, I'm a professional killer. That's a big difference, at least in my mind.

     I limit myself to one or two jobs a year. Once I had a dry spell and went two years without killing anyone. I don't need much money. I'm single, lease a cheap car, wear J.C. Penny clothes, and rent small apartments in working class neighborhoods. Occasionally, when I'm impersonating a businessman, I'll spring for a couple of relatively expensive suits. I once bought a briefcase. I don't live in one place too long and stay out of trouble. I avoid booze, don't, gamble, use drugs or have romantic relationships with demanding or unstable women. I don't patronize banks or use credit cards. I'm tight-lipped, keep to myself, and spend a lot of time in the public library reading newspapers and the tabloids. I like the tabloids. Scandal journalists know how to find dirt on people. They have no shame, and are good writers. I spend a lot of time in libraries because these places are quiet, and no one pays any attention to you.

    In a way, I don't exist. The murder cops don't have a chance because they're chasing a ghost.

                                                 2

     I don't require myself to hate the men I kill. I'm indifferent. But Bradford Littlesmith, a former carpet salesman who somehow made it big in real estate, was different. I didn't like him. He reminded me of the kid in high school who bullied me until I decided I'd had enough. Come graduation day, the cops were still looking for the kid. They never found him. After that, I didn't need the career counselor to guide me into my future profession, although, on my vocational aptitude test, I scored high as a police officer.

     Eventually Mr. Littlesmith came around to discussing his wife's untimely, or for him, timely, demise. While at that point he was probably fantasizing more than planning, I informed him that there was no such thing as a professional contract killer. These men only existed in movies and in books. In real life, so-called hitmen were drug-addled amateurs who got caught and immediately implicated the people who hired them. I also pointed out that hitmen didn't advertise in the yellow pages. Murder-for-hire masterminds also exposed themselves when they solicited people for the hit, and often ended up contracting with an undercover cop. Littlesmith asked me how I came to know so much about murder-for-hire. I told him I spent a few years in federal prison for a white collar crime, and it was there I met men who would do anything for money. I think he bought my story.

     Not long after the subject of his wife's sudden passing came up, my future client and I were having a drink at the bar in a fancy downtown hotel. I could tell he was well known there. I was posing as a potential investor in one of his real estate ventures. As I was about to steer the conversation to his wife Rita, she entered the bar. This I had not expected. Littlesmith saw her coming and said, "Oh boy, here we go." From the look on Rita's face, it was obvious she had not come for friendly drink with her husband. Rita looked angry and she made no effort to hide it.

     Rita was a lot younger than her husband, and even though she had gained a few pounds since her glory days, she wasn't bad looking. I think she was his second or third wife. They had been married three years and were childless. He had a son from a previous marriage. I think Rita had worked for him before they got hitched.

     Rita had one hell of a temper, and a colorful vocabulary to match. The thought crossed my mind that she might kill Littlesmith before I had the chance. This was the kind of out-of-control situation I tried to avoid. Yet there I was, right in the middle of a domestic dispute, carried out in public. Climbing off the stool, I overheard the bartender talking on the phone to a police dispatcher. Just as I approached the door, Rita screamed, "You son-of-a-bitch, I'm gonna kill you!" Everyone else in the bar heard it, too. This was not good.

     The next day I checked the papers and found no news of the hotel bar dustup. Fortunately, no one went to jail. But dozens of people heard Rita Littlesmith threaten to kill her estranged husband, the man I planned to murder. I worried that her inability to control herself might end up causing her trouble. After I took out her husband, Rita could end up under suspicion for his murder. Homicide cops weren't particular in picking their suspects. And once they had someone they liked, they weren't bothered by petty things such as exculpatory evidence.

     Anger had made Rita temporarily stupid, and maybe I was too with my determination to go forward with the hit. But I'd invested too much time to back out now. I had always been lucky. Had my luck ran out? If if had, I'd have to reconsider my future in this business. But for now, I had a job to do.

     A few days after the bar scene, I called Littlesmith from a payphone. "We gotta talk," he said.

     We met later that day in a K-Mart parking lot. I've often wondered how many murders are plotted outside K-Mart. Littlesmith sat behind the wheel of his Cadillac and looked rattled. "She's gotta go," he said. "That bitch threatened to kill me. She just might do it! Do you know someone? You know, like we talked about. Give me a name."

     "I'll do it."

     "What?"

     "I'll kill her."

     "You? I thought you were in real estate."

     "Do you want this done or not?"

     "Okay, but how much?"

     "Fifty thousand."

     "You gotta be kidding. I'm not paying that."

     "Then do it yourself. And if you do, you better hope I keep my mouth shut."

     Littlesmith's face suddenly lost some of its color. "Who in the hell are you?"

     "I'm the guy who can solve your problem--for fifty thousand."

     "I'll give you five up-front and the rest after."

     "If you want it done you'll give me fifty. I don't believe in down payments."

     "No deal."

     I reached for the door handle, "Good luck."

     "Wait! Give me a name."

     "Can't help you there. Say hello to Rita for me."

     "You bastard. Alright. But you better not screw this up. When will you do this?"

     "Tomorrow." We agreed to meet at a secluded spot, a place not far from a lake. "I expect cash, fifty thousand or no deal."

     He agreed and we parted.

     The next day, when I climbed into Littlesmith's Caddy he seemed upbeat, almost excited, over the prospect of his wife's impending death. He wanted to chat but I didn't. I just wanted his money. He handed me the bag and I counted it. All there. I distracted him, slipped in a pair of ear plugs, and bang, job done. After tossing the revolver into the lake, I drove home. Normally at this point I felt relieved and satisfied. But this time I wasn't feeling that. I was thinking about Rita and the possibility that Bradford Littlesmith's murder might not slip quietly into the unsolved files.


                                              3


     A week after I dispatched Mr. Littlesmith, I got some bad news. It was in all the papers. A spokesperson with the district attorney's office held a press conference on the steps of the courthouse to announce that Rita Littlesmith had been charged with the murder of her estranged husband. She was currently incarcerated in the city lockup. Because she was a flight risk, the judge had denied her bail.

     When pressed by reporters to lay out the case against Rita, the prosecution's mouthpiece admitted they had no confession, no eyewitness to the crime, no physical evidence connecting her to the murder, and, as of yet, no murder weapon. But she had motive, and a few days prior to allegedly firing a .38-caliber slug into her husband's right ear, she had threatened to kill him. But they had more, evidence that would send her away for life. Rita had confided to her cellmate that she had lured her husband to the place of his death under the pretext she would consent to the divorce for a small fraction of his estate. After she shot him, she tossed the gun out of her car window somewhere in the city. By now it was probably in the hands of a street thug.

     I was't surprised. When a prosecutor has a good murder suspect, but not enough evidence to convict, the jailhouse snitch comes slithering out of the woodwork. Rita's informant, in return for her lie, probably received a get-out-of-jail card and a bag of evidence-room crack. Rita was in trouble, and maybe I was, too. The moment Rita came storming into the hotel bar I should have walked away from the job. Maybe I had lost my touch.

     As long as Bradford Littlesmith's murder remained an open case, I couldn't move forward, put the hit behind me. Without the jailhouse informant, the prosecutor didn't have a case. That meant this snitch, whoever she was, would have to go. I still had work to do.

     Once I cleaned up the Littlesmith mess, I'd retire. This was not a business for a guy who'd run out of luck and self-confidence. Before I contemplated my new life, I'd identify the snitch and take care of the problem.


                                                 4


     Good thing I read the tabloids because there it was: HOOKER WITNESS IN LITTLESMITH MURDER! The reporter must have slipped the jailer a few bucks, found the informant, and bought her story. Some of these tabloid guys were better detectives than the detectives. A lot better.

     The photograph showed a tall, slender back woman in her forties. The bright yellow hair and the rose tattoo on her neck would make her easy to spot. She called herself Beverly, probably a trick name, and lived in a downtown flophouse called The Regis Arms Hotel. Her husband, a former track star, had run off. That's when she took to the streets--to survive. All these gals had a sad story, it helped in court.

     The tabloid reporter had done most of my work. I'd cruise around The Regis Arms until I found a black, stick of a woman with bleached hair. The sooner I got her into my car the better because the cops would not be happy about their snitch going public. They'd want to reel her in before Rita's attorney got ahold of her and offered a better deal.


                                                  5


     It didn't take me long to roll up on Beverly. There she was, by herself, leaning against the front of a closed tattoo shop, her yellow hair glistening under the streetlight. I pulled up alongside the curb and rolled down my front passenger window. She saw me but didn't move. Maybe she thought I was a cop. She finally dropped her cigarette, straightened off the wall, and walked stiffly toward the car with her high-heels clicking on the pavement. No one was around and traffic was light. Lucky for me, unlucky for her.

     Beverly bent over and looked in. The headlights from an approaching car lit up her face. This woman was already dead, I would be just making it official. "What can mamma do for you?" she asked, without a trace of humanity. Her phony smile revealed a chipped front tooth.

     "Get in," I said, trying to make it sound more like an invitation than a demand. I returned her fake smile with one of my own.

     "Slow down," she said, "this girl needs to see some money."

     "How much?"

     "Depends on what you want?"

     "Just the mouth."

     "Fifty--just for you."

     I held up a a bundle of bills and she climbed in. "Where we going?" she asked.

     "Not far."


                                                   6


      I had planned to take a train to Miami, but at the last minute decided to fly even though I hated the inside a plane full of sweaty people in a hurry to get somewhere. Being trapped in a plane felt like being swallowed by a snake. To make it bearable, I bought a first-class ticket. In first class, they were paid to treat you a little better than the luggage. I wore my J.C. Penny sports coat and one of the two trousers that came with it. When the stewardess asked if I wanted anything to drink, I ordered a Coke to go along with the peanuts.

     Everything I owned fit into a pair of suitcases. I had my life savings--$150,000--packed inside a money belt. Not much for fifteen years of professional killing, but enough for a new start.

     The moment I walked out of the terminal, I was hit by a blast of oppressive heat. I heard someone yelling, and when my eyes adjusted to the sun, I saw an elderly woman bawling out a Hispanic cab driver who looked bewildered. The chunky, bluish-haired lady in the yellow leisure suit was giving the poor taxi driver all kinds of hell. Her husband, a pot-bellied man stuffed into a pink pull-over shirt, and wearing a white acorn cap and lime green trousers flared at the bottom, looked embarrassed. The little fellow stood next to a giant golf bag. I couldn't imagine this man hitting a golf ball. Actually, I couldn't imagine him doing anything but standing in the boiling sun watching his wife make a fool of herself. He and the misses had probably returned from visiting their children up north. I sure the kids were happy that mom and dad were back in Florida.

     Right off I sensed there was something profoundly wrong with this place. I couldn't put my finger on it other than it didn't feel right. I didn't belong here. What would I do in this heat, play golf with old guys in pink shirts and bellbottom pants? What was I thinking? Five minutes later I was at the ticket counter buying a first-class flight back to reality.

     I took a seat in the boarding area and opened my airport-purchased tabloid, and there it was: WIFE GLUES HUBBY TO TOILET SEAT! There you go, a future client.

    The ghost was back.

An 1983 Interview of Thornton P. Knowles

                     A Conversation with Thornton P. Knowles     

     Thornton P. Knowles (1931-1998) was interviewed on August 9, 1983 at his home in Elkins, West Virginia by Rodney McDaniel, the publisher and editor of the Mountainside Review. It is reprinted here.

Do you consider yourself mainly a novelist, short story writer or poet?

     I think of myself simply as a writer.

What do you like to read?

     When I'm writing I don't read anything. Between projects mostly contemporary mainstream novels, some crime fiction, and a little poetry. I don't read many short stories, particularly those in so-called literary magazines and journals. 

What do you have against short stories?

     Nothing. I just don't like the show-off pretentious stuff.

Do you think your work will survive?

     A century from now only a handful of today's writers will be remembered. The novelist who writes for the ages is a fool and will, fortunately, be among the first to be forgotten. As for me, no one will know my name ten years after I'm gone.

Does that bother you?

     No. Why should it?

As a writing teacher did you encourage your students to pursue careers as novelists?

     Of course not. For one thing, except for a handful of writers, such a career doesn't exist. I tell writers to learn a craft or profession. If they want to write in their spare time, great. Only the crazy ones with big talent make it as novelists.

Have any of your students done this?

     Not to my knowledge. 

Does that disappoint you?

     No. Why would it?

How do you feel about not being famous like, say, Truman Capote?

     Capote writes well for a boozed-up drug-addled mental case. He's an oddball who's paid a big price for his talent. If he's remembered it won't be for his writing. The last thing I want is fame. 

Have you won literary awards?

      You know the answer to that.

Why not?

     I don't write what critics consider serious fiction--so called literary novels. Most of the award-winning novels I've read are unreadable. 

 Do you get writer's block?

     No. I hear they now have a drug for that. Perhaps someone should create with a drug that kills the urge to write. Get to the root of the problem. Think of the misery it would save, like the polio vaccine. 

You are a practicing psychologist. Do you regret the effort you've spent writing?

     V. S. Pritchett said, "The professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing." This may be true, but in the end we all become nothing. So if you've got nothing better to do, go ahead, write your life away.

Do you fuss over every word?

     No. There was a Rhetoric professor who before killing himself reportedly spent three weeks laboring over his suicide note. I guess "good-bye cruel world" wasn't good enough for him.

Is that story true?

     No. 

Do you have a favorite writer?

     I like George Orwell, and Charles Bukowski is pretty good. That's about it. 

Do you mind being edited?

     Yes. I knew a police officer who tripped getting out of his patrol car in front of a store being robbed. His gun went accidentally off and the bullet hit the robber right between the eyes. I put this into one of my novels, but the editor took it out because it was unrealistic. I never spoke to that editor again. 

Is that true?

     Yes.

They say kids can't write. Do you agree?

      Johnny can't write because Johnny can't think. Half of his brain has been sucked out of his head into his television set.

You write about crime. Did you ever consider becoming a police officer?

     Absolutely not. If I were a cop I couldn't be trusted with a stun-gun. I'd zap every jerk that crossed my path. Give me the lip? Zap. Give me the finger? Zap. Walk away when I'm talking to you? Zap. I'd be a real Thomas Edison out there. No, I wouldn't last two days on the force.   

Do your readers know what kind of person you are?

     I hope not. I'm not a navel gazer. When I look at my belly I see lint.

What do you expect in a good novel?

     A good story, interesting characters, some dark humor and crisp dialogue. I don't like long speeches. I don't like being preached to.

What did you read growing up?

     I read true detective magazines--Master Detective, Official Detective and True Detective Mysteries. I liked stories by Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and Alan Hynd. My mother worried that these magazines would have a bad influence on me. They did. I became a novelist. 

Do you consider yourself well-adjusted?

     Adjusted to what?

You know--to life, people around you. 

     I'm introverted, self-loathing and a bit narcissistic. I'm adjusted to that. I don't care about anyone else.

Are some of your characters based on you or your experiences?

     In fiction it's impossible not to be influenced by real life. But if you're asking if I ever murdered someone the answer is no.

In what ways are you introverted?

     I hate crowds. I don't like noise, especially coming from people. I don't go to sports events, amusement parks, concerts, firework displays, rallies, or church. I think people who stand around waiting for the big ball to drop on New Year's Eve are idiots. I don't like being around drunks or extraverts. I'm quiet and private and loath myself for doing this interview. 

Why are you doing it?

    For my publisher's publicist.

Do you watch much television?

     No. A student once asked if I knew how television worked. I said yes, you put a bunch of people incapable of embarrassment in front of a camera.

Have you been married?

     No.

Mind saying why?

     Let me ask a question: Who has more freedom--a single man in the Soviet Union or a married man in America?

Are you a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes?

     The bartender at a writer's conference in Morgantown, West Virginia wore a name tag that read: Truman Capote. In the spirit of the joke I ordered an In Cold Bloody Mary. The barkeep didn't crack a smile because the joke was professorial, smarty-pants humor. I got drunk on the horrible thought I had become one of them, a cold-blooded academic. 

Dose being a psychologist help create round, fully developed characters?

     No. As a kid growing up in West Virginia I had a better understanding of human behavior than I do now. I have no idea what makes people tick and no one else does either. Because they are real to me, I don't know what motivates my characters.

You've lived most of your life in West Virginia. Is that by choice?

     Yes. Take away all signs of human life and it is the most beautiful place on earth.

Why are there so many unpublished novelists?

     I don't know, but imagine the agony of aspiring to be something for which you have no talent. What's worse--a gifted novelist with writer's block or an untalented writer who can't stop writing?

Have you submitted a manuscript or proposal no one wanted?

     Yes, many times. For example, my collection of malapropisms called Pomp and Circumcision created a rejection storm that sent my agent packing. 

In high school did any of your teachers recognize your talent?

     No. I was considered an idiot by all my teachers. They had my number.

A critic noted that few of your characters are happy?

     My villains are happy. 

Some of your villains are religious people and men of the cloth. What do you have against religion?

     Nothing. I just don't like charlatans.

Do you think ministers are fakes?

     The ones I create are. I write fiction. I get to decide.

But aren't you worried that readers will be offended?

     That's not my problem. 

Have you been sued?

     Not really. A student once threatened to sue over a low grade that kept him from graduating on time. He's now a college professor. 

Do you think humor is an important ingredient in fiction.

     It is for me. But not all people appreciate it. To those readers I'd recommend literary fiction. Those books are written by people with no sense of humor. They don't know that pretentious writers are the joke. There is nothing funnier than a pretentious person.

Do you get along with fellow writers?

     I don't know that many personally, I try to avoid them. 

Why?

     They are boring, always crying in their beer. Poets are the worst.

Have you been on a book tour?

     No. I don't do readings or book signings either. My life is humiliating enough. I'm doing this interview though.

And thank you for that. It's been interesting.

     You are welcome. Can I go?