My wandering higgledy-piggledy life has led me to many ghostly places: to abandoned mining towns in the American West; to deserted caravanserai in Turkey, once important stops for merchants of the silk trade; to a forgotten Hungarian manor lost in weedy fields, and surrounded by empty buildings where overseers, servants, farmworkers, and serfs once formed a whole village. I’ve seen the long-abandoned Worker’s Colony in Pickering, Ontario, Canada where my grandparents once lived: in some houses, faded pictures still hung on walls, and forgotten plates and cutlery sat on shelves.
Ghost towns never are comforting places to be in. Bare stalks rustle, branches scratch, and loose boards tap. I always hope I’m alone… but of course, a good ghost town should always come equipped with thrills and chills.
The places that fascinate me most are semi-ghost towns — those rundown nowhere communities where eccentric locals are suspicious but willing to dish up a few tall tales, and where the old stories can still be heard. And because of my fascination with such places, I decided to create Blake’s Folly Nevada, a community of abandoned clapboard shacks, rusty trailers, endless wind, and scraggly vegetation. Blake’s Folly is the setting for my two recent contemporary romances, Desert Rose, and All About Charming Alice.
The hero of Desert Rose is geologist Jonah Livingstone. He spends much of his time in the area, sighting mule deer, bobcats, spotted bats, sidewinders, rattlers, and little gray lizards. Of course, there’s another attraction, too: Rose Badger. Rose is lovely and charming, but she’s also the local flirt. Never favoring any one man, keeping much of her life secret, how can Jonah win her heart? It certainly won’t be easy — especially since he’s a complicated man with quite a few secrets of his own.
Rose’s best friend is Alice Treemont, the heroine of All About Charming Alice. Alice is a prickly character. She loves the Nevada desert, rescues dogs, and protects snakes; my hero, Jace Constant, is an intellectual writer from Chicago, and he’s not crazy about deserts, dogs, or snakes. Neither Alice, Jace, Rose, or Jonah expect love to come galumphing over the horizon, but here it is…along with doubts, hesitations, misgivings, and bliss.
Both Desert Rose and All About Charming Alice are contemporary romances, but I also had a hankering to depict Blake’s Folly as it was back in the late 1800s, with three mining companies, a railway line to Reno, many saloons, and quite a few brothels. The sort of people who lived in such western towns dreamt of making a fortune, or they sought adventure, a new life, an escape from the past. In, The Lady Piano Player, (included in the anthology Hot Western Nights) my heroine Essie has escaped a loveless marriage to a brutal husband, and although she has no idea how to survive in a boomtown, she has the guts to give it a try. My delicious hero, Matt, is a true adventurer. Restless, ever on the move, he’s always seeking new experiences. But he’s also a kind man, for experience has made him that way.
So how does all of this sound? Feel like coming to Blake’s Folly for a visit? Just to tempt you, here’s an excerpt from Desert Rose — it’s the first time Jonah and Rose meet:
Rose looked up. “You pass by Blake’s Folly from time to time? Whatever for? This is the end of the world.”
“The world has several ends, and I work in all of them. I’m a geologist.”
“Ah, I see. Well, that explains it.”
“That explains some of it,” he said, taking her in from head to toe with undisguised curiosity. “If this place is the end of the world, how did you get here?”
“The easiest way possible. I was born here.” Rose glanced out of the window at the early evening light touching up a bleak, empty landscape that would never interest a city slicker; at the gentle snowflakes drifting lazily, as though they had no intention of ever reaching the ground.
“And you stayed?”
He was looking even more curious now — if that were possible. She couldn’t blame him. “I did leave Blake’s Folly when I was young. I stayed away for years and was absolutely certain I’d never return, that this place was the absolute pits. It’s funny: there’s nothing going on here. The greatest social event of the year is the Blake’s Folly Get-Together — and that’s just bad music, awkward dancing, and gossip mongering. There’s no cinema within reasonable distance, no shopping outside of Reno — and that’s a very long, boring drive away. Yet, this place has a strange pulling power. So I came back, decided to settle.”
“Your husband is from Blake’s Folly too?”
Rose’s eyes flicked back to his. Ah ha. So, he was interested and checking out the territory. “No husband.”
He looked surprised. “An unmarried woman in such an out-of-the-way place?”
What was he asking? If she was lonely? Desperate for male company?
Rose laughed outright. “Oh, there are plenty of men around, believe me.” There were. They were out on the ranches, or climbing over the hills, or looking for gold, or photographing, or pounding along the history trail, or doing research, or taking care of animals, or looking for fossils, or stopping at the Mizpah Hotel and Restaurant for a drink, a chat, a meal, and a little human warmth out here on the lonely flatland. She’d always had her share of admirers too, although none lived in Blake’s Folly — they’d have to be half-mad to do something like that. This place was a rusty trailer, scrapyard, abandoned car, clapboard shack, sagging old house community: a dead end if there ever was one.
He took the little gift-wrapped packet she held out, slipped it into the pocket of his leather jacket. Turned, looked out at the night, but didn’t move towards the door. Rose watched him, wondered why he was hesitating. Because he wanted to stay? Talk to her? Get to know her? Because he too acknowledged the buzz that was still hovering in the air around them, and he wanted to explore it, see where it would go?
Then he shook his head, turned back to her, the smile still playing softly around his lips.
“Well, I’d better be on my way. Looks like the snow isn’t letting up.”
“No,” Rose agreed. “There have been blizzard warnings all day.”
“Yes.” His eyes held hers. Warm eyes. Intimate eyes. Eyes that, in certain circumstances, could create havoc with a woman’s senses. “Nice talking to you.”
“Nice talking to you too.” She meant it.
He still wasn’t heading toward the door. “My name is Jonah. Jonah Livingstone.”
“I’m Rose Badger.”
He nodded. “Until next time, Rose.”
“See you then.”
He stepped out into the night, half-turned, just briefly, his hand raised in a half-wave, half-salute. Then, vanished into the falling snow and dusky evening.
Rose shrugged. Next time, he’d said? What sort of next time? This was Blake’s Folly. People always said they’d be back, but they rarely were. Why return to a pile of clapboard shacks and abandoned trailers? This was nowhere. This was the end of the line, socially speaking. This was a has-been. This was home.
Actress, photographer, social critical artist, musician, and writer, J. Arlene Culiner, was born in New York and raised in Toronto. She has crossed much of Europe on foot, has lived in a Hungarian mud house, a Bavarian castle, a Turkish cave dwelling, on a Dutch canal, and in a haunted house on the English moors. She now resides in a 400-year-old former inn in a French village of no interest and, much to local dismay, protects all creatures, especially spiders and snakes. She particularly enjoys incorporating into short stories, mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and romances, her experiences in out-of-the-way communities, and her conversations with strange characters.