Jayne Anne Phillips pens a return to notorious Quiet Dell
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jayne Anne Phillips doesn't think she'll ever get tired of writing about West Virginia. In her writing, the award-winning novelist likes coming home when she can and said that it's a real strength for her.
"I feel as though it's a great advantage for a writer to be from a place that they're connected to physically," the Upshur County native said. "I think the place a writer develops a sense of identity has a lasting effect on you."
Phillips' latest novel, "Quiet Dell," in stores Oct. 15, brings the author back to her West Virginia roots and to one of the most notorious crimes to occur in the state: the "Bluebeard" murders of Quiet Dell, a small community near Clarksburg.
In 1931, police arrested Harry Powers in Quiet Dell for the murders of Asta Eicher, her three children and Dorothy Pressler Lemke.
Through ads in a lonely-hearts magazine, Powers had corresponded with Eicher, Lemke and dozens of others. Powers wrote them letters. He promised safety, financial security and love, but really only intended robbery and murder.
At the time, the crime was a national sensation. Newspapers from across the country sent reporters to cover the investigation, but even after the trial, the story became a kind of a local legend that lived on.
"Certainly when I was growing up we heard about it," Phillips said. "Our parents were children when it happened."
Phillips' mother told her about holding her mother's hand as they walked up a dusty, hot, crowded road, past the "murder garage," where Powers had killed his victims, then hidden their bodies in shallow graves out back.
Phillips' mother remembered watching the crowd take apart the garage piece by piece.
"For souvenirs," Phillips said.
The memory haunted her mother and it was an image she passed along to Phillips, which became part of the inspiration for her book.
Beginning with the handed-down legends, rumors and stories, Phillips added to her novel with research from the Clarksburg papers and the local library.
"The rare-books librarian David Houchins was an enormous help to me," she said. "They have a whole room of photos ascribed to local photographer Eugene Fare, and David helped me locate Fare's grandchildren. They gave me permission to use his photographs in the book."
Phillips said even with all of this, she didn't have a fully fleshed-out portrait, which is where the fiction comes in. The skeleton of the story is true: Through deception, Harry Powers did lure two women and three children to their deaths. But some of the characters in "Quiet Dell" were created to help move the plot along and to make the novel more than a dry revisiting of a terrible crime.
Phillips said she also took artistic liberties with some of the real people.
"Clearly, I invented the thoughts and relationships of the real characters," she said. "There's certainly no way to tell who they really were."
Phillips said she wrote the book over the course of the past six summers, a project she took on during the break between semesters at Rutgers University-Newark, where she founded and is the director of the school's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
"It was a writing-from-dusk-till-dawn kind of thing," she said.
She acknowledged she might have completed the book sooner, but added, "I want to have a big life, not a small life."
Besides, Phillips said she has to wait for inspiration, and writing comes in stretches or in bits and pieces. She did some of the research for her book during trips back to West Virginia.
"I get back once or twice a year," she said. "I still have many friends in West Virginia, and when I get invited back, I try to go."
This is not the first time the crimes in Quiet Dell have been written about. The story has been recycled in true-crime books and magazines. Killer Harry Powers inspired the Harry Powell character in Davis Grubb's novel "Night of the Hunter."
The book was later adapted into a film starring Robert Mitchum. Mitchum's portrayal is considered one of the most menacing villains in film history, iconic, but Phillips' book is only partly about Powers.
In fact, the killer appears in person only occasionally on the page. He's often spoken of, the results of his crimes are discussed and described, but the reader is told more about the terrible things he has done rather than is shown them acted out.
"It's more a book about his victims," Phillips said. "I wanted to celebrate their strengths as opposed to Powers."
"Quiet Dell" looks at the aftermath and the shock of Powers' inhumanity. Almost a century later, it mourns the loss of the innocent lives lost and the young dreams snuffed out by nothing less than pure evil.
"Quiet Dell" is also a look into America in 1930, which might seem somewhat alien.
Phillips said part of the challenge of writing a book about that period was the struggle to maintain the right tone. People were more circumspect.
"There was a certain expected civility and formality," Phillips explained. "How they related to one another is different than we do today. They didn't relate to each other with mobile devices."
She said, "Distances were different back then. You could drive three states and no one could track you, but the printed word was so important. Every little town had two newspapers and published twice a day. People really wrote letters, daily letters in some cases."
Which was still social media, just slower and more deliberate.
But the world of 1930 is also very familiar. Powers and others found victims through the social media of the time.
"We're very familiar with that now, I think," Phillips said.
Phillips hopes audiences will embrace the book and that it represents this particular piece of West Virginia history well, though she pointed out (just as Sheriff Grimm did in the book), that Harry Powers wasn't from West Virginia.
Phillips said she doesn't have immediate plans for another book. She tends to work by inspiration, and one novel to worry about at a time is probably enough. Somewhere in between her duties at Rutgers-Newark, she has to put in some time promoting her book.
Probably that will take her to major cities.
"But I'd love to get invited to West Virginia," she added.
It sounds like a good excuse to come home.
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.