Lawrence Thackston sets a page-turner on the SC beaches
It’s the first week of June — the start of the summer season — and a lighthouse keeper on one of the barrier islands near Charleston, S.C., has died a grisly death, an apparent suicide. But then, just as tourists are flocking to the local beaches, the killing spirals into a bizarre series of ritual slaughters. And the only ones who can stop the bloodshed are rookie policeman Tyler Miles and Chloe Hart, a researcher for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s the plot of Tidal Pools by Lawrence Thackston, who will read from his book at City Lights in Sylva, on Friday, June 6. The setting, of course, is coastal South Carolina — its barrier islands, beaches and resorts, stretching from Charleston to Savannah, Ga.
Most of the action takes place on two fictional islands that may strike many readers as familiar. The first is Amoyeli, a counterpart to Dafuskee, the Gullah island near Savannah that served as a refuge for freed slaves. The second is Galeegi, a nearby tourist destination. “Galeegi is a kind of combination of Edisto Island and Kiowa,” Thackston says, and it contains bits and pieces from other resort islands up and down the South Carolina coast.
Thackston, a soft-spoken South Carolina native, wrote Tidal Pools with visitors in mind. “I hope that people who go down to those islands pick up the book for their long weekend and read it on the beach,” he says. But while the terrain may be familiar, the background may not be. In addition to being a fast-paced thriller, the book is based on Thackston’s research into Gullah culture and African religious practices and beliefs that survived the trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I got into a lot of the African mythology,” Thackston says. Some transported Africans, faced with being forced to give up their native religion, blended their customs with Christianity to form Hoodoo. Others, however, clung to Vodun, the polytheistic West African religion that entered the popular imagination as Voodoo.
As he investigated more deeply, Thackston was surprised by what he learned about the survival of Vodun among the residents of the Gullah islands and about the tenacity of Hoodoo even today. “It’s still very prevalent there,” he says. “One of the things I adapted for Tidal Pools is how [practitioners] use the color blue to ward off evil spirits.” Even these days, he points out, you can go to the lowcountry and see houses painted blue as a form of protection.
Thackston admits that he played up the darker aspects of Vodun to put together a mystery-thriller. But he insists there’s more to Gullah culture and that visitors to South Carolina’s lowlands can still find remnants of the residents’ African heritage. Gullah survives in the language, the food and in the quality of personal interactions. “You can walk the streets of Charleston and still see the basket-weaving,” Thackston says. Unfortunately, modern development — from condominiums to golf courses — is diluting the culture that remains.
Nonetheless, Thackston relied on the coastal landscape to inspire Tidal Pools. “I guess it’s a Southern thing,” he says. “If you’re out on that jungle area of a barrier island or going down that black river, you start to see things, and characters are generated from that. Plot follows, and it all kind of puts itself together.” He notes that his first novel, The Devil’s Courthouse, had a similar inspiration — the Blue Ridge Parkway landmark by that name, which he visited often as a teenager.
Like Tidal Pools, Courthouse provided the author and his readers with an opportunity to explore the native cultures and folklore that evolved out of these familiar landscapes. And for Thackston, a teacher and father of three who writes “whenever life allows it,” the exploration of people and culture is central to his work. His books, he hopes, are “kind of like going on a good vacation. You go, you enjoy yourself, you have a great time, but when you come home, a little bit stays with you and forms who you are.”
City Lights Bookstore, citylightsnc.com
Friday, June 6, at 6:30 p.m.