Writer Margaret Eby remembers the late Alabama folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham and pays tribute to Southern ghost stories in her new Paris Review essay “Southern Gothic.” The essay coincides with the posthumous release of Windham’s final book, She: The Old Woman Who Took Over My Life. From the Paris Review:
Windham’s voice is unforgettable. In high school, I would listen to All Things Considered every couple weeks to hear … her rolling, sticky Southwest Alabama accent … “I don’t care whether you believe in ghosts,” Windham was fond of saying. “The good ghost stories do not require that you believe in ghosts.”
The ghosts that Windham believed in weren’t the green spectral presences captured by bounty hunters armed with flotillas of infrared photographic equipment, nor are her tales the ax-murderer campfire lore used to make children jump. They’re extensions of local history, real events pickled in tall tales. After all, Windham’s talent for a good yarn came out of her experience as a journalist: fresh out of college in 1939, she became a police reporter at The Alabama Journal at a time when a woman in the newsroom was, as one remembrance put it, “as rare as Unitarians in our state.”
Windham chronicled the civil rights movement for the Selma Times-Journal through the fifties and sixties, churning out articles and photographs that documented the internal crisis of the South. In her day job, Windham wrote scathingly about the worst that Alabama had to offer: racist taunts, KKK gatherings, tear gas and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But in her books, she celebrated the state’s best: folk artists, snake handlers, and magnificent chefs.
Eby notes many schools assign Windham’s first series of ghost stories, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, as required reading. “What Windham recognized is that all history is made of ghost stories, whether we choose to believe them or not,” Eby writes. Windham’s ghosts included victims of racial hatred, the Civil War, and accidents, such as the sinking of the steamboat Eliza Battle in the Tombigbee River.
In Windham’s new book, She: The Old Woman Who Took Over My Life, the author departs from ghost stories to tell of more personal experience. Windham describes how she woke up one day to find that she had an unwanted houseguest, an old woman who had suddenly moved into her home and was taking over her life. The author refers to this interloper simply as She, and here the reader has been invited into the lively colloquy between Windham –whose spirit has not changed — and her own alter ego, as Windham moves haltingly toward her earthly end. She will leave you laughing and crying, but also grateful and hopeful.