Manic Readers

Hunter James

More than 35 years as editorialist for Baltimore Sun and Atlanta Constitution, contributor to Scripps Howard news service, author of ten published books and teen more unpublished, former fellow for the National Endownment for the Humanities, shared in 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, many articles in nationally circulated magazines, many journalistic awards. Specifics available if necessary. Hunter James.

Here are first two chapters of most recently published book: The Return of Lilith

Hunter James
5581 Becks Church Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27106
See more at


Time and the misbegotten

In ancient Jewish lore Lilith was very nearly the
devil in female form. Believed to be the first wife of
Adam, she refused to pose as his inferior and soon
abandoned him and took up the demonic life with
cruel vengeance. The demonic Goddess of the
Night, some called her. It is said that she lay with
many demons and apparently with anyone else who
gave not a fig for the hell that waited him—or her


The doctor dutifully rose to shake hands, taking
my manuscript with a certain flair of gentility and
then laying it to the side, no ostentation or
ceremony in him today, only a deep sigh that I took
to be a sigh of satisfaction, and nothing more than
his flat, square face staring at me from behind great
swirls of pipe smoke.

He sat back down and again took up the
manuscript, looking at it for a good long while
before tapping it therapeutically with his pipe-stem.

“Well, Emberly, my boy,” says he at last. “More
here than I had anticipated. The way you get right
into the thick of the story—that’s the real trick, isn’t
it?” I glared at the old fraud. “Trick? Is that all? Just
some kind of goddamn trick?”

He fell away with a start, knocked a little silly by
my abrupt assault—though not for long. He laid his
pipe aside and looked at me a bit curiously, as
though meditating my dire and irrevocable fate.

I had often been disappointed by his criticism, to
say nothing of his diagnoses, and was mainly
coming in for my monthly supply of tranquilizers.
So I sure didn’t want to throw him off his game: I
needed those pills badly. The Grunt always liked to

see the stories, a big help to him when it came to
figuring out whether he had done a good job with
the psychoanalysis. He looked at me again, still a
little undone by my unaccustomed show of sarcasm
and incivility.

“Sorry,” I told him. “It’s just that everything is so
damn hard anymore. And I’ve got these palpitations
now . . . “

Old Sawbones mumbled something I did not quite
catch, then cleared his throat and came around to
the front of his desk. I guess he would have felt
awfully bad to know that I no longer regarded him
as one of the town’s most eminent critics.

He looked again at the manuscript, lifting his pipe
for emphasis. “Yes, my boy. I can see that you do
have a real knack for getting right into your
subject.” He stuck the manuscript behind him on his

“Ain’t finished.”

He turned back to the manuscript, looking mighty
troubled. “Hmmm, I thought we were to have a
completed copy this time. Finishing the work isn’t
that part of the discipline we talked about?”

He began to read again, but I just wanted to get
out of there. It was like my good friend Brandt
Akers always said: “How the hell does a goddamn
shrink get away with passing himself off as a
literary critic?”

I went to the window and glanced down over the

town to the waterfront. Lynchburg, Virginia, set
high above the James River; an old place, full of
antiquated buildings, each street terraced into the
side of the hill, which ran almost straight down to
the water. This was my first real fling at the craft of
news papering.

Back in Carolina, I had worked for a couple of
years as an organizer for the state Labor Federation,
carrying the good news of Union Forever to migrant
farmers, textile workers and hundreds of other
laborers in a state that had never much cared for the
idea. Union history down there had been one of riot
and murder in the early days. My own history was a
little different: plenty of time on the road, a good
expense account, lots of sleazy women in bad hotel

As I stood there I found myself wondering again
how I had ever found myself to this lost part of the
world. Sometimes I felt like a sojourner on the Trail
of the Lonesome Pine. But, of course, I knew only
too well why I was there. Loftin Gray, an old soak I
had befriended during his days as one of Carolina’s
top sportswriters, had kept in touch after coming
north to take a job as news editor for the Lynchburg
Morning Daily. Now I was there, at his insistence,
persuaded that, as a recent college graduate, labor
organizer and despoiler of fallen women, I could
make a real name for myself and go right to the top
of the profession.

I looked back down at the river and noticed that
the wind had picked up greatly while I was standing
there. To the north, over the hills of Amherst
County, it had begun to look like snow. Old
Sawbones came over and stood a little behind me. I
kept wondering if we were to have that other and
slightly unsettling conversation that had occurred
during my previous visit.

On that day I had been sitting in front of his desk
in a blaze of bright winter sunlight. He looked at me
thoughtfully and said, “Remarkable! The hair on
your arm is absolutely remarkable. Like . . . well, I
will declare, almost like spun gold!”

That wasn’t all: he was busy shutting the door to
his secretary’s office all the time he was saying it.
Spun gold? I didn’t need to hear any more. I knew
right then that I sure didn’t much care for the way
the conversation was going or for the way he kept
trying to adjust the blinds so as to get the sunlight to
fall on me in a certain way. He got caught up in
quite a fit of excitement before I could get out of

“Now! That’s it. Yes. Is that better?” He had been
talking about the blinds, pretending that all he
wanted was to get the sun out of my eyes. I guess he
only wanted to show off the spun gold at its best,
like a horticulturalist at a flower show. Here I was
thinking I was in the hands of a proper Virginian
who could trace his lineage all the way back to the

decadent inmates of Newgate or Old Bailey only to
find instead that I had fallen into the hands of a
fellow with a taste for pederasty—or something
anyway for which I had no taste at all. Naturally I
couldn’t talk about it back at the paper. The other
reporters would sneer and curse me for my lies.
Because I was fresh up from Carolina, they would
think I was looking to besmirch a good Virginia

He didn’t have to worry; I wouldn’t have talked it
around anyway. I needed all those prescriptions in
the worst sort of way, and here was a fellow who
hadn’t once raised a question about whether I’d
been exceeding his recommended dosage. I turned
from the window and took a seat. No sun this
afternoon, only a cold sky and a promise of snow.

He took a seat and got out his prescription pad.
“Well, as I say, it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got a
real knack—a real flair for the language. Hope you
don’t mind if I hold on to your story for a while.”

The Grunt wrote out the prescription, scheduled
another visit and looked at me even more
steadfastly. “Maybe you’ve been going at it a little
too hard. Eating regularly? You look as though
you’ve lost a few pounds since the last time you
were in.”

“Yeah, for damn sure. Need to get back on the

I had seen it myself, in one of the mirrors back at

the apartment: eyes too intensely bright, maybe
from all the palpitations, my body thinner than at
any time since my basketball days in high school,
face too angular, needing a haircut, all those wisps
of dullish brown hair falling down around my ears
like anything but spun gold, fake grin beginning to
look much too wide. I looked and felt gaunt—a sure
prelude to early death.

Prescription in hand, I hurried across the street to
the drugstore and waited outside, smelling the good
smell of the coming snow, while the pharmacist
filled it. I even thought briefly about going back to
my lousy room on Washington Street and getting
started on the weights right away. But what the hell,
it was my day off—Thursday—and I just couldn’t
face the room right now. Or even the idea of sitting
up there writing some kind of gloomy story when I
could be down at the M&J Restaurant, drinking
beer and looking out the window at the snow and
maybe catching Brandt Akers for a couple of drinks
before he went off to supper.

I noticed there was a new waitress at the
restaurant, a tall one. I sat watching her for a while
and then, a little before dark, Brandt came in and
joined me at the counter, placing his felt hat on the
adjoining barstool. He lived on Court Street, a block
behind the paper, but it was a steep climb up there,
and he always came in for a couple of beers before
striking out for home.

“Sure feels like snow,” I said.

“Weather bureau says we’re in for a big one.”

He was already looking at me with that funny,
squinched look that told me he was about to have a
big, though sympathetic, laugh at my expense.
“Well, what did the quack have to say this time?
Still trying to pass himself off as a literary critic?
What about your latest story?”

“Said it was all windup and no delivery.”

“Well, to hell with that bastard. He probably read
that somewhere.”

He looked at me again, his face flushed, ironical,
half mocking, baldpate glimmering in the dull light.
He put his hat back on, never feeling really
comfortable without it, and again glared at me with
a look of false mockery. He was getting ready to
have his laugh now. “What’s that quack planning to
do with it anyway? Look for hidden meanings?
Peddle it to Esquire? Does he know an agent?”

Brandt had at least fifteen years on me. He was
almost forty now, too old to count on a career in the
big time. He had decided to cultivate me for that
role, mistakenly thinking I had manifested a certain
flair for the writing business even if I hadn’t read all
the right books.

“You’ve got to know the Greeks,” he would say.
“And I don’t see how you’re going to get by
without reading the big English novelists. I mean, if
you ever expect to amount to anything.”

We both looked at the new waitress. “Real class,”
Brandt said. “Maybe she’s just what this dump has
been needing. You thought about asking her out?”

“Dunno. She seems awfully cold and

“How’d you figure that out in such a hurry?”

“Well, she isn’t anything like Terri.”

Terri, the other waitress, was short and dark and
liked to talk dirty. Brandt had grown mildly
interested in her now that his wife was in the last
weeks of her pregnancy. He had talked seriously
about inviting her up to his apartment during his
wife’s “lying in.”

“Maybe we could make it a foursome,” he says.
“Me and Terri, you and the new girl.” Then he
looked at me with his sorrowful, pinched face, still
grinning, and said, “What the hell do I wanta talk
like that for with my wife expecting to go into labor
at any moment? I hate men who do that. Actually I
can’t think of anything more alien to my character.”

His grin had become twisted and more self-
deprecating, his tone apologetic, as he ordered his
third beer and again turned to me. “Where did you
find this quack anyway? And where in God’s name
did he ever get the idea that he was a literary

“Claims to have read Faust in the original.”

I was still trying to decide whether to tell him the
rest of it. Now, after my third beer, I found myself

blurting out the whole story. “He’s queer, you

Brandt looked around, not with surprise really,
only with that same half-mocking smile.

“You mean you’ve fallen into the hands of a
quack who’s trying to pass himself off as a literary
critic and get you into the sack at the same time?”

“My second visit, I think that’s when I realized he
was some kind of pervert. He really was quite
beside himself that day; a big cumbersome falling-
down sort of fellow. Kept getting up and knocking
all the papers off his desk, and then moving all
around the room with a sort of aimless jerk—sort of
bumping into himself you might say . . .”

Brandt kept looking at me, his face flushed and
comical beneath his hat and all squinched up with
sardonic laughter, like a baby’s face grown old too
soon. Halfway through his third beer he had started
the bad habit of repeating himself.

“ . . . Kept talking about how the sunlight flashed
across my arms in a certain way, really sort of
crazy. Like some sort of ritual or something, like
facing Mecca at a certain hour of day or uttering
incantations over a conjure ball. A sort of rambling
manner about the peculiar way the light had caught
me—something about the way the sun had fallen
through the window and lit up the hairs on my arm.
I believe he thought he had struck gold.”


“Spun gold. Talking about the hairs on my arms.”

“A Comstock lode? Imagine that fellow. Did you
hear that, Terri? Show her your arm, Emberly.
Jesus. Spun gold. Can you believe that?”

Terri didn’t take it up. And Brandt didn’t bring it
up again. He was already on his fourth beer—a lot
even for him at supper break.

“A quack like that and a pederast in the bargain.
Or maybe you’re too old to be the target of a
pederast. Maybe he’s just a plain old faggot. But,
my God, some of the goddamndest things happen to
you in this town.”

Brandt kept looking at Terri. Her husband was a
blacksmith. I had interviewed him once. He was the
last blacksmith in all of that part of the world. A
right genial fellow, he was. And he had some real
arms on him. Brandt would be taking a big chance
even if by some quirk he got something going with
Terri. He would look at me with his funny pinched
look that was half the look of a child and half the
look of an old man and say, “Helluva way for a new
father to talk? My wife going off to the hospital at
any time and here I am hot after other women.”

He looked back at me after finishing his beer.
“Imagine that fellow. You say he hasn’t even sent
you the first bill? What other sorts of things did he
want to know? I don’t suppose it took him all day to
figure out you were a raving madman.”

“Kept wanting to know how I’d feel about coming

in on a more regular basis. Wanted me to bring in a
report on my dreams, all neatly done up in
typescript . . .”

“For Chrissake, a goddamn plagiarist too? What’s
he wanta do—sell them to one of the big slicks? A
big critic like him, he oughta know there’s a law
against that sort of thing.”

“ . . . Said if he could just see me on a little more
regular basis we could go on and get into some of
the areas he was particularly anxious to get into. He
kept looking at my arms. I guess he’d finally got the
light just right. I said, ‘Well, that will take a helluva
lot of money, coming in every week like that.’ But
he says, ‘Well, let’s not worry about that right now.
The important thing is for you to get that old
fastball back, and for us to make sure you’re at the
top of your game so to speak.’ Then he just leans
back in his big chair and after a long time of just
looking me over he says he hopes I won’t mind if
he asks me a personal question. Then he sort of
leans forward and looks embarrassed, like he’d
forgotten who he was exactly or what profession he
was in. Starts shuffling through some things on his
desk and then clearing his throat and saying, ‘What
I was about to ask you is whether you have a
regular girl . . .’”

“Very personal question,” Brandt said. “But I
assume you had the goods on him by now.”
“. . . I says, ‘Nobody regular.’ So he studies me a

while longer and brushes some imaginary ashes off
his shirt and says, ‘But you do manage to keep
female company?’”

“Feeling you out before feeling you up?”

“I figured it was about time to throw him off the
scent. I told him about the night I picked up a girl at
the bus station cafeteria—I think you already know
the story—and how I took her up to the New Era
Hotel, a real dump if you don’t happen to know it.”

“Only too well, I fear.”

“ . . . And how she wanted to know if it would be
all right if she took off her wedding ring before I
screwed her. Just like in all those dirty movies. He
just sat there nodding and looking thoughtful. Then
he says, ‘Sounds like the making of another story,
but you do realize, don’t you, son, about the risk of

“Imagine that fellow, won’t you? I can’t believe
he ever read Faust in the original.”

Brandt laughed his half-mocking laugh as he rose
uneasily from the counter and staggered toward the
door. It had started to snow and coming down really
hard by the time we got to the street. “You’re
coming to supper, you know, and the way it’s
looking now you’d better plan on spending the

He started off in the storm and dragged me after
him. The snow had first come down as sleet, but
now all snow, and coming down harder all the time.

“Come on up to my place and we’ll have a real
drink. Weather like this. What the hell, I might not
even make it back down here tonight. Supposed to
be off at nine anyway.”

I went out behind him and we made the long
climb to Court Street by way of Monument Terrace,
a magnificent stone staircase built in the gloriously
decadent style of the Italian Renaissance. Then
there was another climb to the third story of
Brandt’s apartment building. I stood at the rear
window while he stuck a glass of straight whisky in
my hand and stood with me for a moment looking
back down over the city, sleet, snow and now a
regular damn blizzard. All I could see of the city
was a blur and nothing at all of the river.

“One drink and then I’ll get on home.”

“Don’t dare think of it,” his wife Gloria said.
“We’ve got a good hot supper—and more than
enough to go around.”

She went to the window and looked out over the
roofs of the town. She was a lovely woman—dark
hair, skin almost milky white—and now in her full
term of pregnancy. She was older than me by only a
year or so and had divorced her first husband to
marry Brandt. “What a storm! Sure hope we don’t
have to try to make it to the hospital on a night like

Not only that, it would spoil all of Brandt’s plans.
Getting to the hospital. And then trying to arrange

something with one of the girls he was hoping to
bring up. He and Gloria were still practically
newlyweds; they had moved up to Lynchburg from
an old textile town on the Virginia line and into this
apartment only a week or so after their marriage. I
was always a little surprised to learn that he was
thinking about double-crossing her while she was in
the hospital. Not that I wanted to betray my lack of
sophistication by saying anything about it.

I had taken a chair by the hearth and Brandt got a
fire going. He had brought in the bottle of whisky
and set it between us. I was feeling a lot better now,
with the whisky inside me and the snow coming
down and a hard wind coming up from the river.

Brandt’s reddish flush had turned to a deathly
purple, and he was increasingly repetitious. At this
hour of the evening, with the snow piling up outside
and the whisky getting steadily lower and a good
blaze going in the hearth, he would always be at his
most philosophical and start naming off all the
hundreds of writers I hadn’t read, the great
symphonies and concertos with which I was
unfamiliar—a whole world of which I was almost
entirely innocent.

Unlike me, Brandt was a Virginian, though not
one of those who could boast of great wealth or
famous ancestors. Still, he had come from a small
town notable for aristocrats and since he had some
age on me I suppose that gave him a certain

priority. “You can’t afford to leave out all the big
English novelists or the Greeks or any of the really
big names,” he would say. “You might as well be a
shoe salesman.”

“Maybe the best thing.”
“No, you don’t want that. You sure don’t want

So there I would sit, making notes about all that
was missing in my life—literature, trashy women,
music, travel and all the rest. We often went
together to a new paperback bookstore that had
opened in the town that year. Before I left the town
I had whole boxes of books that gradually lost their
covers and gathered thick layers of mildew before I
ever got around to reading them.

Thirty-five years ago and all the covers coming
off and I still think of all those lectures by the
fireside at Brandt’s apartment with the snow piling
up against the window ledges. And about all the
women he wanted me to romance. Sometimes, even
now, I wonder how I would ever have found time to
work in all of that literature amid the really hot life
he was organizing for my benefit. On this snowy
night my new life was supposed to begin for sure,
possibly with the new waitress, the tall one, at the
M&J Restaurant—depending on whether his wife
had to be rushed off to the hospital, of course.

It was well after midnight when I stumbled out of
the place, taking my time in the snow. It was still

coming down hard, the dull glimmer of lights barely
visible along the two sides of the river. A real
monster this time. And I knew how it would be the
next day with the sun shining down blindingly all
over the frozen city and me suffering from a
hangover. No matter. All I was thinking about was
getting back to my crummy apartment and enjoying
one more drink alone and jotting down more notes
on all the books I was supposed to read and trying
to figure out how to make my first sally into the
world of wholesale iniquity—or at least to ask the
tall girl out.

“By the way.” Brandt said, pushing the door open
again and following me down to the sidewalk.
“Loftin wanted to know if you were coming in
today. Seemed in a big hurry to tell you something.
I think it had something to do with your lodgings.
Knows of an apartment that you might like. Just
down the street from us. Sounds like something you
ought to look into.”

Then, dropping his voice a little, he elbowed me
knowingly in the ribs, just as a fresh blast of sleet
struck me in the face: “Good arrangement for both
of us, if you know what I mean.”

I looked at him curiously. “The new girl and

“Sure. I mean, if it all works out. Wouldn’t want
to bring them here, and you sure wouldn’t want to
take them to that dump of yours—the worst yet.”

“Stayed in so many I’m beginning to appreciate
the underside of life.”


There was drunken brawling all the time in those
rooming houses, every place worse than the one
before. But it had not begun that way. In the early
days I had lived in the most elite part of town, on
North Princeton Circle, just off Rivermont Avenue,
out by Randolph Macon Woman’s College. Later I
was cussing myself mightily for moving away from
Rivermont, home of the bluebloods, and parting
company with the aristocrats, devil of a mistake.
How else was I to make anything of myself in a
town like that? All I was just another guy from the
North Carolina hill country. Wouldn’t know a
genealogy from the backside of a mule—so Brandt
was always telling me after killing his first six-pack
of the evening.

Looking back on it, I guess I must have been
awfully naive not to realize that fate had introduced
me to an extraordinarily promising situation. Lord,
some of the stateliest old homes in all of Virginia
were along that street, with the James River coming
down along its northern boundary and the great
flank of the Blue Ridge rising just to the West.
Besides all that, I was living in a house occupied by
one of the most socially distinguished ladies in the

whole town, a niece of the late Sen. Carter Glass,
and, one might suppose, distantly related to the
Byrds, Bloods, Culpepers and maybe even to
Thomas Jefferson himself. This was a long time
before anyone found out that Jefferson’s favorite
mistress was a black slave woman.

Leyton Wilder, our managing editor and himself a
blueblood, had arranged the whole business and
drove me out one afternoon to meet the genteel
lady. Did she need the money? Perhaps. Old Uncle
Carter hadn’t been much help. One look around and
I could see that neither he nor any of her other
famous relatives had done a whole lot for her. She
appeared indeed to have fallen into that not-
unhappy social state sometimes known as genteel

No one would openly say anything of the sort.
Glass was a special favorite of the town. Everybody
had forgotten that he began political life as a
populist firebrand and had founded the Lynchburg
News to further his cause. But the old boy
eventually got some sense in his head and decided
to put himself forward as a town aristocrat,
eventually winning election to the U.S. Senate,
where, in later years, he made a big name for
himself as chief architect of the Federal Reserve
System. He was still bossing the town from the
grave. His descendants, down to the fourth
generation, were getting richer by the day off the

two papers he had created, The News and Daily

My landlady was certainly as gracious as anyone
could have wished. But I don’t know, for me, life
on North Princeton Circle just never did work out
the way I’d hoped. I spent more than eighteen
months there and never really made the adjustment.
It was as if something was always closing in on me,
not giving me the time I needed to find my Voice.
Maybe I never would find it even if my pederast did
keep telling me that I had all the tools to make the
big time.

As time went on I knew that somehow I would
have to get out. Trouble was, I would also have to
think of some mighty convincing excuse. How to
convince Leyton that I had acted correctly just to
walk out on one of the truly estimable ladies in all
of Lynchburg? Well, before I could hatch up a real
plan, the lady surprisingly gave me all the excuse I
needed. Not anything I would want to spread
around the office. And surely not anything I could
ever mention to Leyton.

It wasn’t what one might think. No attempts at
seduction or anything like that. It was real sad in a
way. I had come in late one Saturday night after
drinking way too much and had fallen asleep over
my paperback copy of the Iliad when I heard it:
mastodons plunging through the thick forests of the
Pleistocene, cries of mayhem somewhere in the

primordial darkness and a mad clash of spears,
brave Hector challenging the sullen Achilles again.

Come on out and fight, bastard!

I jerked awake to hear my landlady screaming at
me from the back of the house: “Oh my God! Help
me! Somebody please, please help!”

That was all. I sat up listening intently for a
moment before lying back down. Maybe it would
be all right. If it were a burglar or rapist maybe he
had got what he wanted by now and had fled the
place. Not being armed, I could only imagine that it
was the essence of good sense to give him plenty of
time to make his getaway. Or maybe it wasn’t
anything after all. It was just too much archaic
poetry after too much late-night revelry.

Then it came again: a cry of savages waiting for
the kill, a clash of spears, bull elephants crashing
through the undergrowth of distant rain forests.

“Oh my God. Can you hear me, Mr. McFeebe!
Help me, my God, please help me!”

I leapt up and rushed screaming through the dark
of the house. “By God, I’ll shoot to kill, you
goddamn sons of bitches, busting in here like this in
the middle of the goddamn night!”

I had expected to hear an abrupt scattering of feet
as the intruders made for the door—or at least that
was my hope. My plan was to knock over enough
furniture and antique glassware and what-have-you
to make the bastards think a whole army was

coming. Were they waiting for me somewhere back
there in the dark? What a relief to find that it was
only the sad old lady lying by herself in her own
vomit and excrement. The old bad genes coming

She had been drunk and had fallen off the bed and
turned the slop jar upside down on her and now her
nightclothes were all sodden and I could see two
huge scars from an old mastectomy and I tried to
get her back in bed without dirtying my hands and
then I turned the slop jar right-side-up and tried to
get on out of there. Then I figured it would be more
sportsmanlike for me to grab a mop or something
and try to clean the place up. No mop. All I could
find was a stack of old newspapers. I scrubbed up
the mess as best I could, desecrating a lot of my
bylines and smearing myself with the excrement.

She lay there in all that mess thanking me for
coming to her rescue and promising me unending
joy and prosperity for undertaking to “bring succor”
in the most desperate hour of her life. I stood
watching her with the excrement dripping off me
and explained that that was about the best I could do
and that maybe I’d better take a quick shower, and
her saying, “Thank you, Mr. McFeebe. God bless
you, young man. May He bring you prosperity and
eternal solace.”

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