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Dark Gonna Catch Me Here

Dark Gonna Catch Me Here
by Jamieson Ridenhour

From the Arkham House Encyclopedia of the Blues:
Little Blind Johnny (Jonathan Pickman Akeley 1919-1940), itinerant guitarist and singer in the blues tradition. Began performing in Mississippi in late 1937, but didn’t achieve more than local reputation until late summer of 1938. Played juke joints and house parties, traveling mainly in the Mississippi delta area, often by jumping trains or hitching rides. Innovative and expressive guitarist in the style first popularized by Son House and Robert Johnson. Just before his death Little Blind Johnny recorded six songs for John Hammond, including his signature tune “Whispers in My Head.” Died in 1940 of a self-inflicted gunshot at age 20.

* * *

Little Blind Johnny could see as well as you or me when he went to the Conjure Woman in 1938. You’ve probably heard the story a lot of different ways, but the way I know it is the true way. I was fifteen years old in 1938, and I was there for most of it. The rest of it I got from Johnny’s cousin Bobby Akeley, who was staying with Johnny and his momma the summer it happened. I wish it wasn’t true, and I wish I had never seen what I did back in 1938. Some times in my dreams I still see that thing, whatever it was that came through the trees in the August moonlight. And I can hear Johnny whispering to me.

I guess to know the whole thing you have to go back a little time. This would have been toward the end of 1937, I reckon, or maybe early 1938, when John Akeley started busking out in front of the hardware store in Arkham, Mississippi, and showing up at the juke joints asking to play. He was a skinny little thing, seventeen or eighteen years old, all gangly arms and big ears. He had this deep chocolate skin and the most soulful eyes you ever saw, but at that time nobody would look past that scarecrow body of his to see them. And that was what he wanted most, for some girl or woman to take a liking to him. He was about as pathetic a little thing as you could imagine, mooning around after the girls in Arkham. But none of us took much notice of him, except to maybe send him to get us a Coke from the general store and then laugh at him while he was gone.

The only thing that meant more to him than the ladies’ attention was that old guitar of his. He had heard Robert Johnson play in town the year before, and that was it—Johnny was gonna be a bluesman like Robert. I have an idea he thought playing and singing would help him with the women, ‘cause Robert had women hanging on him wherever he went. I reckon every boy ever picked up a guitar did it partially to impress some woman somewhere. Or some women. But there was more to it than that for Johnny Akeley. He was a regular blues hound. He loved the music as much or more as he longed for loving.

He would stand out in front of Mr. Kuttner’s hardware store and play for four hours at the time, trying to sound like Son House or Charlie Patton. And he couldn’t do it, you know, he just couldn’t. Awfulest racket I ever heard, Johnny Akeley trying to coax some blues out of that old guitar. He’d throw open his guitar case down by his feet, hoping somebody’d toss a few coins in appreciation, or acknowledgement, or from just feeling bad for him. But most days it didn’t look like he made enough to buy a glass of lemonade at the General Store.

When real blues men would come around, playing the juke joints out on the edge of town and staying for a couple of days at the Arkham Arms or with whatever woman would take them in, Johnny was like to drive them up a wall following them around town and begging for lessons. Willie Brown one time told Johnny that if he didn’t quit dogging Willie all over town he was gonna bust him over the head with his own guitar. Didn’t stop Johnny none. The next day he was back out on the sidewalk, beating all six strings like they were the ones needed punishing.

We got kind of used to Johnny Akeley. He was always there, standing on one side of the door just like the wooden Indian that stood on the other. Got to be like a little puppy, you know. We’d speak to him when we went in the hardware store or passed by on the street, and we thought he was a little strange but sort of harmless as long as you didn’t listen to that out-of-tune caterwauling he was doing.

Around this time, Johnny took a liking to a girl who lived in town. Her name was Bessie Gardner, and she was the daughter of Charles Gardner, the grocer. The Gardners lived in a big white house right in the middle of town. Bessie was a pretty little thing, high cheekbones and skin like early dusk, and she had plenty of men asking after her. But she was kind of naïve, you know, a little too sweet. Her daddy was considered uppity by most of the folks in town, though they didn’t have no trouble shopping in his store. The Gardners were church-going folk, and Charlie Gardner surely didn’t have no use for the juke joints or the type of music Johnny Akeley wanted to play. And Bessie did pretty much what her daddy told her to, and didn’t seem to think too much on her own. So it surprised everybody when Bessie Gardner started spending her afternoons out in front of Kuttner’s Hardware, talking to Johnny Akeley and listening to him torture that old guitar. One day he had said something to her as she was walking down the sidewalk past where he was playing. He had said, “You sure are looking mighty fine today, Miss Bessie Gardner.” He was always saying things like that to girls passing by. He even said it to me once. The only difference is this time instead of laughing and keeping on going, this girl stopped and said thank you and asked what kind of music he played.

I don’t know what she saw in that boy. This was before all the women wanted him, you understand, before he was Little Blind Johnny. Before he let the Conjure Woman lead him down to the crossroads. And there she’d be, every day, sitting on one of the rocking chairs old Mr. Kuttner kept out there, drinking a vanilla coke and talking to Johnny Akeley. And listening to Johnny Akeley. That boy musta never had nobody to listen to him in all the eighteen years he’d been alive. He lived with his momma in a little house with a tarpaper roof in the hollow outside of town, and ain’t nobody ever spent any time with him regular. His cousin Bobby was staying with them that summer, but he was always laid up on the couch drinking moonshine. Johnny had spent years saving up a lot to say, and he was saying all of it to Bessie Gardner.

Bessie was a little childish sometimes, and she was uppity as a Persian cat, but she was a year older than me and pretty good-looking. It didn’t make no sense that she’d be giving attention to that Akeley boy. That’s why some us started hanging around the hardware store of an afternoon, just to have a cold drink and give a listen, you know. We didn’t mean nothing by it. We just wanted to know what was going on. Most of it wasn’t worth hearing, anyway. Bessie talked about her family and about how she got tired of being kept away from everybody, as if it was hardship living in that big fancy house with all her fancy clothes. Johnny Akeley mostly talked about how bad he wanted to play the blues. How he tried and tried, but just couldn’t make the sounds come right.

I was there, on one of the rocking chairs outside Kuttner’s, the day that Bessie invited Johnny to her house. She told him she had gotten a hold of Robert Johnson’s new record, “Terraplane Blues,” though how she did I’ll never know, ‘cause her daddy sure wouldn’t have let that thing in the house. Not many people in Arkham had a phonograph player, but the Gardners did. They had everything. Bessie told Johnny he could come by some time and listen to it, if he wanted to. And Johnny said he didn’t have nothing to do right then. And Bessie said well why don’t we walk over there now, daddy won’t be home from work until tonight. I said I’d like to hear Robert Johnson’s record, and Bessie said she couldn’t be having a whole troop of folks tramping through her daddy’s house. I said I wasn’t no troop, but they just walked off together down Bloch Street, Johnny with his old guitar case hanging from his hand like a suitcase.

The Gardner’s big white house was smack in the middle of town, on the corner of Bloch and Derleth. Ain’t there no more, but it was right where the bank is today. Bessie’s bedroom was on the ground floor at the front of the house, so you could hear most everything from the porch, especially if she had the window open. And in August in Arkham, Mississippi, everybody had their windows open. I could hear the needle scratching, and I could hear Robert Johnson’s high keening voice: “I feel so lonesome / you hear me when I moan.” And boy, that was some kind of sound, you know? The guitar was something else. Wasn’t no way Johnny Akeley could do what was on that record.

And then the song was over, but nobody was saying nothing. I waited a minute or two, listening to the needle scratching in the grooves at the end of the record, and then I took a chance and peeked in the window. I could see them through the curtains. They were sitting at the foot of Bessie’s bed. Johnny Akeley had his arms around Bessie Gardner and they were kissing. I mean kissing like it was their job. I was so shocked I ran off that porch real quick and ran up Derleth Street. I saw Johnny Akeley a little later as I was coming out of the grocery store. He was walking back out towards his place, a dopey smile plastered over that big-eared face of his.

The next morning it was all over town about how Johnny Akeley had been in Bessie Gardner’s house, and how Bessie’s daddy had come home early, having already heard about it up at the store. Anybody passing by that late afternoon could have heard the shouting match that followed, and it seemed like everybody did. Charlie Gardner wasn’t having no no-account bum like Johnny Akeley seen going around with no daughter of his, and he certainly wasn’t having that good-for-nothing nigger walking all over his house. He was a purveyor of the devil’s music (sometimes Charlie Gardner talked like a preacher) and Bessie would never talk to him again.

But that wasn’t the end of it. This next part I got from Bobby Akeley, Johnny’s cousin. Just after sundown that night, Charlie Gardner knocked on the Akeley’s door. Bobby saw it all from the couch where he was spending the summer drinking from a Mason jar. I wouldn’t have believed it otherwise, a man like Charlie Gardner showing up in the boondocks like that. Johnny’s momma was out, like she usually was, and Johnny himself had answered the door. He had been practicing, and he had his guitar in his hand. That didn’t surprise me none; the only time I had ever seen him without a guitar in his hand was while he was kissing Bessie Gardner, and even then he’d had one foot propped up on the case. Anyhow, Bobby said that Johnny hadn’t even got the door open good before Mr. Gardner started in to yelling at Johnny, calling him every name in the book and making up a few more for good measure. He hadn’t raised a good and pure young woman for a useless punk from a tarpaper shack to come along and knock her up. Bobby said Johnny looked scared, like he didn’t know what to do or where to look. He tried to defend himself by saying that he wasn’t knocking nobody up, that all they had been doing was kissing, which probably was about the worst image he could have put into Charlie Gardner’s head. Bobby said as soon as the word “kissing” left Johnny’s mouth, Charlie Gardner reached out and grabbed Johnny’s guitar by the neck, and turned and swung it against the doorframe. It busted up into kindling. Mr. Gardner tossed the pieces down at Johnny’s feet and walked back into town to his big white house.

Bessie Gardner and Johnny Akeley both cried themselves to sleep that night, I reckon. The next day I was out in front of the hardware store, and there come Johnny up the road, right up to the store where he set himself down in his same place. I had already talked to Bobby when he stopped by our place to buy his moonshine late the night before, so I knew all about Charlie Gardner’s visit to the Akeley place. Johnny just sat there and looked at the Whateley Funeral Home across the street. It was like he didn’t know what else to do. But I’ll tell you what, if Johnny Akeley had been looking for the blues, one look at his face that day would tell you he thought he had finally found them. Lucky for me he didn’t have no guitar with him, or else I’d have had to listen to him try to play them.

“What’s wrong with you Johnny?” I asked, though I knew as well as he did. “You look like somebody done shot your dog.”

“Don’t you be talking to me, Annie Blackwood,” he said, cutting me a look. “I ain’t in no mood to be talking today.” His eyes were flat when he looked at me. He looked like the saddest boy that had ever lived. I think that was the first time I noticed how smooth his skin was. And then I thought maybe I could see why Bessie Gardner had been talking to him in the first place.

“I know something that might could help you, Johnny Akeley,” I said.

“I told you I ain’t in a talking mood. Don’t go yammering at me. You ain’t got nothing could help me today, unless you got a guitar in your pocket.”

“I ain’t got no guitar,” I said, “but I know how you can learn to play like Robert Johnson.”

He looked over at me again pretty sharp, but I could tell he was interested against his better judgment. “What are talking about, Annie Blackwood?”

“I’m talking about Robert Johnson. Ain’t you heard how he learned to play? Folks say he used to be a little nothing guitar player, just like you. Now don’t get all huffy looking. I’m just trying to tell you what I heard. He went and made a deal with the devil. That’s what people say. And after that, he could play just like you hear him now. Just like he sounded on that record you heard at Bessie’s house yesterday.”

His face fell when I mentioned Bessie, but I could tell I had him hooked. He said, “That’s just a story. And even if it was true, I don’t know how to make no deal like that, and you don’t neither. Go on away. You’re always botherin’ people.”

“You ain’t got no reason to be mean to me, Johnny Akeley,” I said. “I didn’t smash up your old guitar. And I didn’t say I knew how to make no deal with no devil. But I know somebody who does.” And when I said that, Johnny quit scowling at me and started listening.

And that’s how I came to take Johnny Akeley down to see the Conjure Woman. We went that very afternoon, down into the woods behind the hills west of Arkham. The Conjure Woman’s real name was Asenath LaRoux. You can tell by her name she wasn’t from Mississippi, but she had been in Arkham for as long as most of our parents could remember. Most folks spoke bad of her and said they would rather be caught dead than to ask her for her “services” (they always used that word), but she made a pretty good living so somebody was lying. Her house was back up in the woods, like I said, but it was a snug wooden house with a real brick chimney, a sight better than the tarpaper shack Johnny Akeley lived in. I done some odd jobs for the Conjure Woman from time to time to get a little spending money, but this was the first time I had brought a client to see her.

Asenath LaRoux was a bug-eyed little woman wrapped in calico. She kept her crazy hair tied up in a do-rag, but it kept trying to escape. That was the worst part about her, far as I could tell; her hair writhed, like it was tired of being under that rag, like it wanted to go somewhere else. It didn’t seem to bother Johnny Akeley none, but when your heart is busted you don’t see what’s right in front of you.

“Annie says you know how to make a deal with the devil,” said Johnny, almost before he got through the door. I was worried he was being rude, talking without even greeting her, but Asenath LaRoux acted like they was just going on with some talk they had been having for a while.

“That depends on what you mean by ‘devil,’” she said, looking up from the book she had open on the table in front of her. I had seen that book before, and it gave me the screaming shivers. “But I know something of that kind. What’s a gangly bony thing like you want to make a deal with the devil for?”

“I want to play guitar like Robert Johnson,” said Johnny. “I want to sing the blues like a real live bluesman, and I want to be with Bessie Gardner while I do it.”

“That’s pretty specific, Johnny Akeley,” said the Conjure Woman. “Is that all you want?”

“Well, I reckon I need me a new guitar if I’m gonna do them other things,” he said, kinda getting shy now that the first rush was wearing off. If you really paid attention to the things the Conjure Woman had in her front room, you got to feeling fidgety and wanting to be as respectful as you could and to get out as quick as was polite.

The Conjure Woman stepped around the big wooden table that held her book and her powders and she looked up at Johnny with her big bulging cock-eyes. “I reckon you do,” she said. “But that sounds like a tiny thing next to the other ones. Do you know the crossroads between here and town, where the old highway meets what turns into Miskatonic Road?”

“Out past the old paper mill? Yes, ma’am, I know that place.”

“You be there just about dusk. And bring your money.”

“I thought the devil wanted…I thought the deal was…”

“You can pay your devil however he asks for it. But I ain’t working for nothing.”

“Oh. Yes, ma’am.”

“And Johnny Akeley?” She called him back from the door.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“The Black Goat of the Wood has a thousand young, and they all of them different from the last. The devil ain’t who you think he is.” Johnny didn’t have no answer to that.

Johnny went home and took everything he could get his hands on to take down to the pawn shop. His momma was sleeping, ‘cause she had been out late, and Bobby didn’t care none. After he had hocked the coffee grinder and the big mixing bowl and his momma’s pearl brooch, he had half a handful of money that he held out for me to see. “You think that’s enough to pay the Conjure Woman?”

“I seen people pay with less,” I said. “Miss LaRoux is pretty good about taking whatever you can pay.”

“My momma’s gonna kill me when she sees that brooch gone. It’s the only thing worth anything she ever had.”

“She’s got you,” I said.

“Yeah. She’s gonna kill me.”

Johnny Akeley went down to the crossroads to meet the devil, and I went into town to do one more errand for the Conjure Woman. It didn’t take no trouble to convince Bessie Gardner to come with me. Didn’t take no convincing at all, really. I called to her through the window, and she came out. Her daddy wasn’t home yet, and she come to the door real quick when I said Johnny wanted to see her. Bessie Gardner walked out of her house and down the road with me, and that was the last time anybody saw her in Arkham. I told people later that she had gone down to the Greyhound station and taken off, and because she had just had that big fight with her daddy, most people believed it. But she went down to the crossroads with me to meet Johnny.

It wasn’t no short walk. Miskatonic Road left town heading west and wound through the little shacks on the edge of town, in and out of the hollers and up and across the bridge over Machen Creek, which was closer to a grown-up river right there. Right on the bank of the creek sat the old paper mill. It was a big old cinderblock building, and in the setting sun it cast weird shadows across Miskatonic Road as we crept past. That paper mill had been boarded up for six or seven years—the Depression had killed it like it killed my daddy—but it still stank. The smell clung to it and got in your clothes if you got too close. Bessie shrunk away from it, said she thought there was people moving in the shadows. I told her she was just getting spooked.

She was spooked, too. But I don’t think she was imagining things. It seemed to take forever to get past that big old paper mill, and before we were halfway done I could see things moving too. Never when you looked right at them, but out of the corner of your eye like. More shapes than one, slinking behind the piles of abandoned wood slats and dripping down the concrete walls. They didn’t move like people, and they changed size as they shifted, throbbing and spreading like stains. I pushed Bessie on as fast as I could. I didn’t like to linger.

When we got there Johnny and the Conjure Woman were standing in the middle of the road where Miskatonic crossed over the Jackson Highway. That’s a lonely place, hidden from town by the paper mill and from everything else by the hills to the west. The land was flat, and you could see up the highway in both directions as far as you wanted to look, and down Miskatonic a good little ways towards the hills or the town. There were a few scraggly trees just off the road, and that’s where I stopped with Bessie. She wanted to know what was going on, because she was always a nosy thing, but I told her to hush up, that Miss LaRoux was going to make sure she and Johnny could be together. She just watched for a while, but I could tell she was restless.

Asenath LaRoux had her big book laying in the dust at her feet, laying open with all its weird drawings and wrong writing staring up. She also had a rooster that she had got from somewhere, held by the neck in her right hand, and a big curved knife in her left. I knew that knife—it usually hung on the wall in the Conjure Woman’s front room. I had looked at it a bunch of times before, and I didn’t like it. It had a bone handle with these squamous carvings all over it that made you feel sort of sick to your stomach when you looked at them. Johnny stood next to her with his head down, like he was thinking or ashamed or something.

That’s what I saw when we got there. It was just about dusk, and the light was getting dimmer. I could feel the wind rising, and the leaves were trembling on the trees. While Bessie and I watched, the sun finally slipped behind the hills and it got what could really be called dark. Then Miss LaRoux started chanting and hollering, shouting out “Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” and “Nyarlathotep!” and once “Gibbering Azathoth!!” It was about the scariest thing I had ever heard in my life, then or now. And I knew she was calling the devil.

All of a sudden Miss LaRoux started dancing around in a little circle, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and then she stabbed the rooster with her knife, just under its neck. Blood spurted out in an arc. The Conjure Woman spun in a circle, spraying chicken blood all over the dusty ground at the crossroads. Johnny took a step backward to avoid getting bloodied, and when he did Bessie jumped away from me and ran out to him, even though I told the fool girl not to. I took a step towards them, thinking that I ought to drag her back off the crossroads, but Johnny put his arm around her, and Asenath LaRoux looked at them and said, “Welcome, Bessie Gardner. We’re doing important work tonight, and it’s a good thing having you here.” So I stepped back and stayed under the trees. My part was done, I reckoned, and I didn’t want to be too close when the devil came.

The wind was really whipping now. It was pretty dark. I could just see the three of them standing out in the road, especially Bessie in her white dress, and I could see the crossroads themselves, the lighter dirt of the roads standing out against the dark. Even though the wind was still blowing, it seemed like everything went quiet all of a sudden. I started smelling a stink like the paper mill, mixed with something nasty being burned, and something under it like rotten fish. And then I heard something coming through the trees behind me.

I slid around behind one of the trees and covered my mouth to keep from screaming. I saw the devil walking through the trees. But it wasn’t no devil like I’d expected. There wasn’t no horns nor tail nor nothing like that. This devil was all kinds of wrong. It was like a big goat when you looked at it one way, but it was more like a squid if you looked the other way. It had too many eyes and it wrapped parts of itself around the trees and shrubs as it slid towards the crossroads. It was big, I mean impossibly huge, like a mountain or a planet, but at the same time it wasn’t even as tall as the trees we were under. I know that don’t make no sense. But as long as that devil was moving there that night, ain’t nothing made no sense. Everything that had ever made sense was over for good.

Johnny Akeley looked up and saw it coming, and I could see the whites of his eyes flash out as he took it in. Then I saw—oh god—I saw the Conjure Woman raise her knife and then there was another gout of blood, staining that white dress of Bessie’s as dark as sin.

I took off. I didn’t give a damn right then about Johnny Akeley or Bessie Gardner. I wasn’t staying to see whatever else was gonna happen. I ran and ran down along the side of the Jackson highway until I got far enough away that I could cross the road without being close to that unholy thing Asenath LaRoux had called out of the hills.

The trip back into Arkham was almost the worst part. There was things out there that night that shouldn’t be walking. Those shadows from the paper mill seemed to be all over the place, moving in the ditches and stretching across Miskatonic Road trying to trip me up. It had come up a bad cloud, and the wind was in my face the whole way. I couldn’t see nothing, so there wasn’t no reason to be looking back over my shoulder, but I couldn’t help it. I just knew something was on my trail, dogging me all the way up to the old paper mill. And then, once I made it past the mill (and I still don’t know how I got the courage to get beyond those throbbing walls) everything seemed to open up. The dark got a little lighter, and the wind let up, and the shadows stayed put. I ran all the way to my house and hid under the covers until morning.

Nobody had heard yet about Robert Johnson, how he had died that night, poisoned by a jealous husband. The next morning everybody was talking that Bessie Gardner had run off, run away from home because she had a fight with her daddy. I told my Greyhound story, and everybody wanted to know about it. I was sitting in front of the hardware store telling the story for a third time to two or three of the younger girls, when I saw Johnny Akeley walking down Bloch street carrying a guitar case. He had on dark sunglasses, and he was walking funny, kinda slow and awkward. I stood up and called his name. He half-turned towards my voice, and right then I realized that he couldn’t see. I went down the steps to him.

“Johnny, are you blind?” I asked, ‘cause I couldn’t think what else I should ask.

“Yeah, I reckon I am,” Johnny said. He stood there, looking sort of over my shoulder. He looked different, like he was older. He wasn’t gangly no more, and he didn’t look like he’d have any more trouble getting women’s attention.

“You got a new guitar?”

He smiled, and I about melted. “Yeah, take a look at her,” he said, and he knelt right there on Bloch Street and flipped the clasps on the case. The guitar case was odd-looking, covered with a soft leather the color of dusk, hand-stitched it looked like. I didn’t like to touch it, so I waited until Johnny lifted the lid himself.

Johnny pulled the guitar out and showed it to me. It was smooth and new and shiny, with a shoulder strap made out of the same leather as the case. The tuning knobs and the bridge and the frets were made of bright, hard bone, and the strings looked like fresh catgut. The dots marking the frets were small and white, shaped sort of irregular, like little teeth.

“Is she a pretty guitar, Annie?” asked Johnny. “I can’t see her.”

I swallowed. “Yeah, Johnny, it’s about the prettiest guitar I ever seen. Has it got a name? Like a real bluesman’s guitar?”

“Yeah, she’s got a name. Listen to her,” he said, and he slipped the leather strap over his shoulder and started to play.

So I was the first person to ever hear Little Blind Johnny play the blues. And it was all there, everything you’ve heard on those old records. Except hearing it with him standing there in front of you was about a million times clearer and more powerful than what you can hear on a scratchy old recording. He played Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” and it was the lonesomest, howlingest, bluesiest piece of playing that had ever happened on Bloch Street. I almost cried, listening to Little Blind Johnny play the blues that morning.

When he was done he put that weird guitar back in its case and picked it up. He said he had to go. He was going down to the Greyhound station, and he was gonna dust his broom and light out. I wanted to hug him, but there was something that told me I wasn’t ready for that. He said, “Goodbye, Annie Blackwood. Thank you for everything you done.”

“Johnny,” I called, and he stopped and turned, still looking a little over my shoulder. I thought I could see something moving behind his glasses.

He turned and started walking away again. But then he stopped a second time and walked back to me. He reached out to feel where my face was (his hands were leathery and hot), and then he bent over and whispered something in my ear. What he whispered made me feel light-headed and sick. It made me want to go to bed with him. It made me want to run screaming through the streets. It made me want to die. I’m almost ninety years old, and when I think about what Johnny Akeley whispered to me back when I was fifteen I still have to sit down till the strangeness passes. And no, I ain’t about to tell you what it was he said.

After that, I only saw Johnny Akeley one other time, when he came back through Arkham a year later to play at Sonny’s Juke Joint. I was messing around with Frank Howard, and he didn’t care for blues music so we didn’t stay too long. But I was there long enough to see how it was. The women was all looking at Johnny, and I could see in their eyes that they felt the way his whisper had made me feel. I don’t know which one he stayed with that night, but I guarantee you he had his pick. And the way he sang, and the sounds he pulled out of that guitar. Robert Johnson couldn’t never have played as gut-stomping real as Johnny Akeley did. I was first in line to buy his record when it came to the general store in Arkham. It’s real good—you’ve heard it—but it ain’t like hearing him play. It ain’t like staring at those dark glasses and feeling like, blind or not, he was looking right at you. Ain’t nothing like that. People who saw Little Blind Johnny saw the real blues.

When I heard he’d shot himself, I wasn’t too much surprised. You can’t live like that, making those kind of sounds—too long and still be who you were. My first thought, to be honest, was to wonder what happened to that guitar. I ain’t never heard nobody talk about it, but it must have gone somewhere. I don’t like to think about that hank of bone and leather laying in some basement somewhere, or in some museum. But I suppose that’s better than somebody actually playing the thing. Only Johnny Akeley could have done that, and he only could because I took him to see the Conjure Woman. That’s my contribution to the blues, and I can die knowing I did my part.

* * *

Jamieson Ridenhour is novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. His award-winning short horror films Cornerboys and The House of the Yaga are featured on He is the author of Barking Mad (Typecast, 2011), a Wodehousian werewolf murder-mystery; In Darkest London (Scarecrow, 2013), an academic study of Gothic London, and Grave Lullaby (2012), a national finalist for the David Cohen playwriting award; as well as editor of the Valancourt edition of Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Architrave, Inkspill, and others, and has been podcast at Pseudopod, Cast of Wonders, and Radio Unbound. Find him online at

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

Other writers. Like most authors, I am a voracious reader. Reading good writing inspires me and makes me want to try harder. I love beautiful prose, and the tension and release of a well-constructed narrative. A Peter Straub novel, a Kelly Link short story, an episode of Buffy, these are gaslights on my cobbled alleyway. And coffee. Coffee.


Unknown said...

A great, creepy, Lovecraftian chiller--and with a much more melodious voice than Lovecraft himself managed! (Also the nerd in my loved the nods to Bloch and Derleth. August Derleth doesn't get enough love!)

Jamieson Ridenhour said...

Thanks for your kind words, and for catching the Bloch and Derleth references!