In the story I’m brainstorming for (see here and here), the tale of a Christmas superstorm that’s rather sprawling but has as its heart Georgia Roadhouse, a character I invented, who has a vacation house in the Shenandoah, the very heart of the storm, and stays there over Christmas, together with a ghostly lover who comes in out of the storm and seems an awful lot like he also came out of the 18th century.
Georgia is a bookish wallflower type, in stark contrast to her lookalike older cousin (and “auntie”) Decca Roadhouse, but nevertheless they love each other dearly, sharing (among other things) a love of fine red wines. But what are some other aspects of her character?
One idea I have is: what if Georgia had a near-death experience when she was younger? She’s just 21 as of when the story takes place, so what about when she was in the last stage of childhood, say around age 11? I don’t envision Georgia having any real genetic defects or chronic illnesses, let alone being subjected to some kind of violent attack or natural disaster, so the most obvious cause of her almost dying would be an accident of some sort. In that spirit, I thought, why not a skiing accident? That can leave you pretty banged up or even kill you, and it’s fitting, since Decca loves to ski; perhaps Georgia likes to join her too on her excursions to the Slovenian Alps.
One day she has a severe accident, and almost dies, having a relatively classic near-death experience; think the tunnel, the spirits, the sensation of levitation, her life flashing before her eyes, and all that good stuff. She will also experience the type where you’re offered a choice as to whether to move on to the spirit world or go back to our world, and she will choose to return, being told that if she does she will be blessed with a child and enjoy a good life, with one spirit in particular, who manifested as a man, making a strong impression in her memory.
She’s able to recover from the accident, which involves several bone fractures and, worst of all, a concussion, which takes her months to recover from, auntie Decca no doubt spending a great deal of time and effort on her convalescence. She eventually recovers from the accident and has a normal life afterward, though she is a bit shaken and altered by her experience, in particular becoming even more of an ethereal bookish wallflower than she was before, and perhaps coming across as wiser or more mature than her years would suggest afterward (this is common in real life, by the way, after going through such a thing).
I’m thinking her preference to spend her days listening to audiobooks, her preferred way of assimilating books for the most part (though she often has a physical book in hand too, loving them to the point she’s the type of girl who annotates the margins all the time), will become even more pronounced after the accident. And although I’m not interested in depicting any severe sort of post-concussion syndrome that lasts for life, I’m wondering if she might be more prone to headaches and even migraines on a permanent basis afterwards, along with sensitivity to noise. Perhaps she was always prone to them, but speculation is rife that they’ve gotten worse.
The spirit she saw and primarily interacted with during her experience makes a strong enough impression on her that she outright commissions an oil-on-canvas portrait of it, framing it and hanging it up in a prominent place in her vacation home. Turns out her Yuletide boyfriend who comes into that same house looks just like the man in the picture, and over the course of the story she could swear the picture subtly changes and moves, adding a delightfully gothic touch.
She’ll recognize the man, who introduces himself as Ephraim Gunstone, as closely resembling the spirit she saw in her experience, outright telling him that he’s literally come out of a dream, wondering if it’s her destiny to fall for him; during an encounter they have in her hot tub, he tells her that if it’s her destiny she should just sit back, relax, and enjoy herself. It’s here that she loses her maidenhood, feeling nothing but excitement and comfort at the thought, somehow knowing that it was her time. She practices fertility awareness, and knows that Christmas just so happens to be a day she’s fertile.
He sticks around long enough to meet Decca and company when they arrive at the house, after a rather daring and intrepid expedition through the worst blizzard in Virginian history (that involves, among other things, using an outer-solar-system grade nuclear melter to burrow under the snowpack!), but when the storm starts dissipating Ephraim disappears along with it, suddenly being no longer present when they turn around to look for him, with there being nowhere he could have gone to without their noticing.
Decca and Georgia, true northern-English-descended Appalachians they are, both agree that he must have been a ghost (worth noting: ghosts are often stronger presences on Christmas and during storms…). It’s not too long before Georgia discovers she’s pregnant, glowing at the thought of having her child after such a good time, the fulfillment of her dreams both romantic and meteorological (she’s a weather nerd, which was a key motive for her to stay there during the unprecedented storm in the first place).
That’s not usually seen in Western traditions of ghosts: the idea of the spirits of the dead having offspring with the living, but it’s not as out-there in certain non-Western traditions, and besides, even in the West angels, demons, and gods had children with mortals all the time, so I’m just going to roll with it. Besides, if you ask me the idea of having sex with a ghost and having a spirit like that for a parent sounds like the coolest thing ever, so I’m going to use it!
Decca’s and Georgia’s Family
Georgia is a single mother, but she’s financially independent of the need for a job or career and (unlike Decca) it’s not like she has much else she’d like to do with her time or her life, so neither her nor her baby should have too much trouble. If anything Decca and the family might be relieved, since at this point Decca and Georgia are the only young people left in the family, with Decca herself up in her mid-forties, approaching the age at which she couldn’t have a child even if she wanted to (which she doesn’t), leaving 21-year-old Georgia the last hope for any descendants.
Everyone else in the family is geriatric, and all live together in the big family house in Abingdon, Virginia, which is also a residence for Decca and Georgia (the young people got themselves vacation homes so they’d have more space for themselves). Everyone remaining who lives in there is a group of siblings, who range in age from 66 (Georgia’s mother Jessica) to 86 (Decca’s mother Dolly). There are three brothers as well, but I’m thinking none of them ever had any kids.
Jessica was married to a man, but early in Georgia’s life they were divorced and they never saw hide nor hare of him again, which makes Georgia even more skittish about men, dating, and marriage than she’d have been anyway! Dolly, meanwhile, was married but is currently a widow; at some point, perhaps a few years before “Orphans of Opry Tower”, her husband died of dementia. Well, not exactly.
How did Decca’s Father die?
It’s not exactly rare for patients diagnosed with degeneration such as Alzheimer’s to commit suicide, and not without good reason (just read the symptoms of even the middle stages of the disease, let alone later…), especially if they’re male. In this universe moral values are somewhat different, and suicide for medical reasons is much more acceptable and popular than it is in real life.
In the case of Decca’s father he’s diagnosed with a form of dementia, travels the world and does everything he always wanted to experience in his life to the extent possible during the time he has left in the early stages, and then takes a cyanide tablet.
What sort of ravages was he trying to avoid? No offense to those with Alzheimer’s, but the symptoms struck me as rather too vanilla for what I wanted. Then I looked into other forms of dementia that are not as well known, and I think I’ll go with “dementia with Lewy bodies”. The Lewy body dementias actually represent a sizeable fraction of all dementias, being second in prevalence only to Alzheimer’s, but they’re much more obscure and research into them has been much more limited.
The symptoms are also rather interesting. The presentation I’ll go with Decca’s father includes wide fluctuations in cognition, with impairment being markedly more severe in weeks-long attacks of the disease, followed by week-long-or-longer periods where he’s almost normal. Deficits in attention, executive function, and visuospatial function also appear, necessitating by the point he’s in the early stage him always having an assistant to help him with planning, organizing, staying focused and on-topic, et cetera. This person will most likely be the wife, who will accompany him on his pre-mortem sojurn.
Decca’s father also had the characteristic REM sleep behavior disorder, where he acts out dreams as he’s sleeping; as is common in real-life cases, he had this symptom for decades before the dementia phase set in, in his case as early as when he met Decca’s mother. So bad was the acting-out of dreams that his wife couldn’t stand to spend the night with him the first (and only) time she tried to after making love. Luckily for them husbands and wives usually have separate rooms (or even houses) in this setting anyway, so it was no big deal for their relationship. Later on as he gets much older daytime sleepiness will present itself.
Another essential feature of the disease is “parkinsonism”, which often manifests in ways that preclude physical activity; luckily for him, a person who always dreamed of doing various athletic experiences before he died, the first parkisonism symptom he gets is in the face rather than any other part of the body, being confined to his face always being blank, his range of expression being markedly reduced. This causes him a great deal of distress, however, since throughout his life he was known for his almst-cartoon-character-like expressiveness, which was a quality that drew his wife to love him to begin with, and both him and his wife miss that aspect of himself dearly. At this stage he can’t stand to look into a mirror and can barely stand to live with himself; he feels the writing is on the wall.
As if that wasn’t enough, the visual hallucinations seal the deal. As is common in real life, he starts getting them very early in the disease’s progression. While in his case they’re manageable and (unlike some patients) he knows they’re not real, they do worsen with time, and they also worsen during his “attacks”; during those periods he increasingly loses the ability to tell that they’re not real. That more than anything else compels him on his course of enjoying what the world has to offer and then ending it all before it gets too bad.
Other symptoms he has include autonomic dysfunction, albeit at a low level at any stage he experienced. He was basically always prone to constipation, and in midlife he starts to get orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure upon standing, which can lead to dizziness or fainting). Both are effectively treated, but are early signs. Ditto for sexual dysfunction.
His memory, on the other hand, is never impaired even at the moment he kills himself, in stark contrast to Alzheimer’s, where memory degrading is often the first sign.
A rather grisly topic, and one that will only be touched upon in the backstory, since this all happened about 20 years before the Great Christmas Blizzard. This time period is also around the same time Decca met her husband Hernando; perhaps they drew closer together on the basis of shared grief, because he had lost his wife to a tornado at around the same time. Well, that and the bond between Decca and Hernando’s twin children, who even back then were both top-level dancers who (like Decca) loved to chew up the floor at her place in Music City. And she found his chosen passion of storm chasing (which he was just then starting to get into) to be cool, adding such a layer of intrigue onto what was an otherwise agreeable personality (complementing her more dominant tendencies).
They probably never enjoyed the sort of passion little cousin Georgia has with her ghost, but they were special to each other…until Hernando is killed on Christmas during the storm by another tornado (this time an ice-wrapped one). Men just keep dying on the proprietress of Old Dominion Dance Studio, don’t they?
Hollywood Dementia…closer to Real Life than you think?
Oh well. I do find it an irresistible part of fleshing out these characters’ family background, and I find it fascinating how the Lewy body dementias overall bear a much closer resemblance to the sort of neurodegeneration often depicted in Hollywood films and television shows than Alzheimer’s does. In particular I’m thinking about a couple of the neurodegenerations that are depicted on “Star Trek”.
The “Irumodic Syndrome” Captain Picard has in “All Good Things” comes off as rather Lewy-like, and especially the “Clarke’s Syndrome” that Captain Archer’s father Jonathan Archer had, with symptoms being described as consisting of visual hallucinations and bouts of extreme pain.
Weirdly, Captain Archer’s mirror-universe counterpart seems to also be suffering from Clarke’s Syndrome, if the visual hallucinations of his prime-universe counterpart as well as the gnashing of his teeth and his immunity to the “agony booth” are any indication (the latter two both suggesting that he was used to being in severe pain). Mirror Archer even comes across like some kind of a psycho, which is consistent with how Lewy body dementias often produce (even early in the disease) symptoms resembling those of psychiatric illnesses!
His case is weird in two ways: first, because his prime-universe counterpart doesn’t seem to suffer from it, and secondly because he has it in his early forties, which (assuming it is some form of Lewy body dementia) is not a typical age to suffer from such a thing. Perhaps mirror Archer suffered some sort of chemical or radioactive contamination at some point that brought it on? Possible, especially considering how mirror Trip is suffering from chronic delta radiation poisoning in the same episode.
So it’s weird and not entirely consistent with the real disease, but I am nevertheless struck that there even is a real (and common!) disease that does resemble the more dramatic sorts of dementias often depicted in Hollywood. Huh. I digress, but researching it these past few days has been quite a trip.
I always sorta wanted to tackle such a topic in a story in the context of my worldbuilding for my science-fiction-cum-alternate-history near-future universe, albeit in more of a parenthetical or backstory sort of way (making it the central topic would just be too depressing for me to want to write it up!), and this Christmas superstorm story would be an excellent opportunity to do that. Ditto for the classic profile of the near-death experience.
Indeed, together with everything else I’m doing, which basically comes out to a plot of “The Day After Tomorrow Lite”, I’m set to weave in an awful lot of story and worldbuilding elements that I’ve been eager to get into, and since for me that’s half the fun of writing, I expect that when I eventually get around to writing up this story it’ll be one fun time.