By Mary Ann DeSantis
Book Cover provided by Adventure Publications; author photo provided by Angelica Duke
Sitting around a fall campfire naturally leads to storytelling, and the scarier, the better. “Ghostly Tales of Mississippi” will provide you with some new stories, but just don’t read it alone.
Mississippi has long been regarded as one of the nation’s most haunted states, and Tupelo native Jeff Duke has captured stories reflecting that reputation in his first book, “Ghostly Tales of Mississippi.”
The collection of 14 short stories is a tour around the Magnolia state from places where you expect ghosts – like Natchez and Vicksburg – to more unlikely locations, including a mall theatre in Tupelo and a medical library in Jackson. The book is a very quick read at less than 100 pages, making it perfect for a few bedtime stories leading up to Halloween.
Duke knew he wanted to be a writer since the third grade. His grandparents told him stories that piqued his interest, and he’d write every chance he got. After seeing the movie “Star Wars,” he even wrote a story he called, ‘the further adventures of Luke and Hans.’
“I wanted more so I wrote my own,” he says with a laugh. “When I was a kid, we had to make our own entertainment and I was perfectly happy to make up stuff.”
He remembers Tupelo being the kind of small town where kids rode their bikes to Walmart and the local mall was the social media of the 1980s. “Looking back, I couldn’t ask for a better place to grow up,” he says.
He discovered books by authors Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, often reading while in detention for doing the “things kids do.” His favorite King book is “Night Shift,” a collection of short stories. He re-reads “One for the Road” from that book every few years because he considers it the perfect horror story.
“Good horror stories get readers to care about or get attached to the character,” he explains. “The story also has an element of ‘creeping dread,’ those smaller things that culminate in absolute horror.”
Most of the stories in “Ghostly Tales of Mississippi” are based on legends he heard growing up. He researched others – like the Eola Hotel in Natchez – and gave them his own twist. Several are written in first person, and readers will wonder if Duke actually had paranormal experiences himself.
“I’m really comfortable writing in first person,” he says. “I’ve often had people ask if those events really happened to me but, no, it’s a literary device…
except for the story about the Longwood House.”
In that story mid-way through the book, a boy accompanies his father on a “boring” architectural tour when he sees several ghosts, which certainly enlivened the day. Duke was on a school tour with eighth graders when he saw a ghost, but surprisingly the Longwood chapter is not written in first person.
But it’s not surprising so many young people love “Ghostly Tales.” He’s proud that friends have told him their children used the book for school book reports.
“I had to keep the book simple and fairly tame because it was aimed at children,” he explains.
Duke understands the kinds of ghost stories kids like because he was reading books by folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham as far back as elementary school. Her highly successful Jeffrey series of books began in 1969 with “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey,” and subsequent books covered mysterious and supernatural happenings in several Southern states, including Mississippi.
“I read those books over and over,” remembers Duke. “My elementary school librarian would bring me her personal copies to read.”
After high school graduation in 1990, Duke describes his college years as “basically a tour of Mississippi’s higher learning institutions.” He went to Mississippi State University where he studied creative writing with short story writer and professor Price Caldwell and then to Ole Miss, where he studied under novelist Barry Hannah.
“He [Hannah] was a wild guy and very interesting,” Duke says. “His classes were more like writing workshops, where he’d read his book and we’d critique him; then, we’d read ours and he’d critique us.”
While in Oxford, Duke met author Larry Brown, who completely changed some of the things Duke wrote. “He is among my top five favorites…I’ll read his stuff sometimes and think, ‘what am I doing’,” says Duke.
The author eventually returned to Mississippi State, where he earned his degree in 2000. He worked in Information Technology, including a stint with Apple during the time the company launched FaceTime. Duke was one of the faces who talked to people when the app started.
Today, he and his wife, Angelica, reside in Austin, Texas, where he works with the State of Texas and pursues writing in his spare time.
“I needed a break from writing,” he says. “When something isn’t fun, you need to take a break.”
Now rejuvenated and settled in Austin, he is ready to start his next collection of short stories. Instead of the horror genre, though, it will be Southern-style “grit-lit.”Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.