What the hell is a haint?

It’s fun telling people about my book.

I had to get used to doing it, actually… and, it’s still a little awkward. Because, you see, I don’t talk about my work in the first couple of drafts. It kills the book. Like, outright murders all my creativity from there on out. My first drafts are like fragile, ugly, featherless baby birds. With the weird, bulgy eyeballs and little flappy nubs instead of wings. And if I tell people about them, it’s like tossing them into a boxful of feral cats. End of ugly baby bird-story.

So, I have to let my stories mature, and make it through (multiple) adolescent stages of edits before I can let them fly free. In this metaphor, that means telling people about them. Or letting people read them. Or (and this is the ultimate heart pounder!) sending them out on submission!

So, about Haints … when I was telling my brother about the book, he stopped me cold and said, “What’s a haint?” Huh. He lives in the south. I thought all people who lived in the south knew about haints. We paint our porch ceilings “haint blue.” We tell ghosty, haint stories. But I guess that’s not really his cup of fictional tea!

N.K. Jemisin wrote about haints in a short story in her fabulous collection, “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?”

I first learned about haints as a kid, when my family moved to the backwoods over the Clinch Mountain Range. How backwoods was it? Folks who move out, to the big city of Morristown, call it “Over Home.” Because it’s an original trunk of the Appalachian family tree. Melungeons hail from there. It’s impoverished, it’s naturally gorgeous, and it’s totally forgotten by the world at large. So … pretty much backwoods.

Superstitions abound in Appalachia. The girls I went to school with wouldn’t bathe (or sometimes even go to school) during the first days of their menstrual cycles. It was bad luck, you see. There were witches’ keyholes in the tops of old chimneys. Featured in my book is a house with five ways in, but no doors between the inside rooms. You’d have to leave the house and come back in to go from room to room. I still don’t know why. It’s since been razed, but the house was real when we moved to the property.

To understand haints, you have to understand the land. Folks would have to walk home through tracks in the woods, in the dark, after a day at the lumber yard or farming over yonder. The mist seeps up in the twilight, making little ghosties along the path. Painters–sleek, black mountain cats–stalked walkers, sometimes. Their cry is terrifying, like a woman shrieking. Can you hear it? Can you feel the pockets of chill air that bring goose bumps in an otherwise warm evening? Feel the eerie stillness of woods holding its breath … and you, not knowing if the critters are afraid of you, or if there’s a bigger predator stalking.

There you go. That’s haints. Haints are the things that haunt.

In my book, they’re the balancing weight on the other side of joy. I didn’t discover this until after I’d already written my story, but it’s like hygge and uhygge: one is comfort and quiet joy, the other is deeply unsettling creepiness.

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