Tales of untimely deaths or the occasional incarceration were related in ghoulish detail. I heard about the great-uncle who fell into a bonfire and perished while burning autumn leaves, and I learned about the wife-killer who carved a hope chest in prison, emblazoning the word “Mother” across the lid. (It now sits serenely in my mother’s bedroom, and you would never guess it had such dubious origins.) I listened to stories about angry fights that erupted into gunfire, and accidental deaths couched as suicides. We were the south Texas version of the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, with more than a few nasty things to be seen in the woodshed.
But those tales became warp and weft to me of the fabric of storytelling. I learned that conflict is the essence of telling a good story, and that the twistier a tale, the better. I learned–like most southerners–that eccentricity was to be prized, and that being ordinary was settling for something less. And while my own storytelling might seem on the surface to borrow more heavily from the English side of my family, I owe my love of the macabre to the Texan half, to men and women who rustled horses and killed their wives and abandoned their babies and drove cattle north to Kansas. They lived larger than most, and because they insisted on living by their own lights, I have a hundred stories to tell.