Hummel Park, Jeremy Morong, and thoughts on settings influencing stories

Last week, Dave hinted at how we were going to be doing something a little different this week.  Well, here it is. Those of you in the Omaha area already probably are wondering why the heck would I be talking about the most haunted park in Omaha and those of you outside of Omaha were wondering until that line what the hell Hummel Park even was.

This week, a local author from Omaha, Jeremy Morong, had a book come out called The Legend of Hummel Park. It’s a collection of short stories. Hummel Park is -that- place in Omaha. The one that all the legends spring from, where you hear about hauntings, and body dumps, and lynchings, and albinos. In fact, normally, local authors that aren’t Rainbow Rowell don’t get much press. Hummel Park is so imbedded in Omaha’s psyche as the scary place that one of Omaha’s news stations even did a story about Jeremy and his book. I’m posting the link here. Between watching this clip and further information below, those of you not in Omaha should get a good indication of what Hummel Park is all about.

Dave contacted me a couple of weeks ago (in Facebook, then had to text me to tell me to check my Facebook as I am currently in a very casual acquaintance relationship with Facebook) and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing an author he knew with a book of short stories coming out. The subject? Hummel Park. Well. Those of you that have been reading this blog for awhile know that I’m a fan of the “spooky”. And short stories. And Hummel Park, which is fascinating in so many different ways. So, I told Dave I had to think about it….ha! kidding! I told him sure. He gave me Jeremy’s email address and bada bing, bada boom (I’m not sure where some of this stuff is coming from tonight, in all honesty) the next thing I knew I was at a reading for Midnight Circus (a literary magazine run by EAB Publishing. Check it out here. (Side note: The most recent issue, Issue 9, is an amazing issue. Check it out.). Jeremy and I had agreed to meet up there to talk a bit about the short stories, Hummel Park and whatever else came up. Now. If you haven’t watched the clip of Jeremy talking about The Legend of Hummel Park above, go do so now. I’ll wait.

So. In all honesty, after I read the stories, I was not expecting Jeremy to be well…Jeremy. I was envisioning one of those slightly gloomy coffee house guys (you know, not the emo ones, the other slightly gloomy coffee house guys) or someone that I’d be likely to bump into in a bar that seems like Halloween year round. Jeremy, well, he looks like he works in a bank (which is good, since he does actually.) Though, I should have had some warning that he probably wasn’t the gloomy coffee house sort when we had a whole 3 or 4 email exchange about our children’s names (there was other information interspersed, we aren’t really that pathetic). We talked about favorite books and he told me about reading to his two year old son as he was going to sleep at night. He’s reading him Huck Finn and other ones he’s loved in his lifetime. Now. Please, please, buy a copy of his book. Read those stories. Then reconcile the stories with that image. I have yet to read Jeremy’s other two published works (sorry Jeremy! My to be read pile from the library is huge. I promise. Soon!) but he assures me that they’re less macabre and are books that he feels comfortable with his children reading as they get older. We had to leave shortly after the reading was done, due to the place closing down. Which was sad because I definitely could have spoken longer with him and done more of the interview in person than via email. But, Jeremy was nice enough to answer my multiple questions in email.

Legends of Hummel Park has two stories in it that were written (per Jeremy) specifically with Hummel Park in mind. They’re fascinating to me because they really explore the intersection between stories, legend and reality. There’s also a sense of when someone desperately and truly wants a legend to be true, what lengths will they go to? (Oh, and by the way, Jeremy stated he agreed with me that in Hemingway’s short story, the curtain was probably just a curtain, so don’t go looking for hidden symbols in every word he’s written. It’s not there. Or at least not symbols hidden in trees and curtains and hills). Then other stories have Hummel Park almost as a hidden character. They’re spokes in a wheel with the Park in the middle. Then there are the ones that don’t overtly have Hummel in them, but the tone of them…well they’re Hummel all the way. In a couple of the stories, there’s almost a glee to the macabre. Oddly, for the fascination he shows with Hummel Park, Jeremy says he has never seen anything overtly spooky. He said his dad used to take them to Hummel when they were kids, and tell them the story and he always just wanted to see the hermit!

(Digression note: I was listening to the podcast Serial today, which I recommend, and they were talking about Baltimore’s Leakin Park, and the dumping of dead bodies and the spooky feel of it. And I was like Hummel! Except for Leakin, the reputation as a dumping ground for bodies is well documented and deserved. In the last 50 years I think it’s been something like 60 bodies found there. For those of you outside of Omaha, there have not been 60 bodies discovered in Hummel Park. But…maybe they’re really there! Ha.)

So, here are the questions I emailed, and Jeremy’s responses to them.

1. Explain about Hummel park for Dave and my readers who aren’t from the Omaha area. What it is on paper and what it is on legend.
“Hummel Park is a park on the northern edge of Omaha, set in forested river bluffs that overlook the valley of the Missouri River. Though there are residential areas around it, they are sparse, and so it is highly isolated. If you want to do something you’re not supposed to when the sun goes down, Hummel Park seems to be the place for you, even though the park closes at 8 when the gates are locked.”
2. You told me when we talked that your dad used to take you there and tell the tales. You have a 2 year old son now. Do you plan on continuing the tradition?
“We live fairly close to Hummel and we love to hike, so we’ve been there many times. I have a 7-year old daughter and she loves to count the stairs, and I’m sure I’ll tell my son all the tales, but only in a joking manner. I don’t want them to be scared of anything that isn’t true!”
3. You personally have never seen or heard anything creepy at the park. Why do you think it lodged itself in your psyche like it did?
“Everyone likes ghost stories, I think. We believe, and we hear things, even when our brains are telling us not to. I can’t say that I’ve ever had anything unexplainable happen to me there, but it definitely has a vibe about it–maybe it’s the vultures that often circle overhead! The idea of being alone in the woods–it’s very powerful. You never know when the Big Bad Wolf is waiting for you.”
4.  Do you think Omaha has deposited a lot of the “banal evil” of the city into one place? Like the trees where black men were supposedly lynched?
“I think that when people see something that perhaps can’t be explained, there’s an urge to explain it, and sometimes the facts get in the way of that. For example, the trees that “lean” can be explained easy enough–they grow on a small hill that borders a road and seeking sunlight, naturally adjusted.

But, what kind of story is that? Unfortunately Omaha, like most cities, has a sordid history with race, particularly lynchings. Malcolm X was born here; his family fled shortly after he was born due to harassment from the KKK. In 1919 there were a series of race riots, including a brutal lynching. I guess someone thought it would be fun to link that horrible incident to the trees in Hummel.”
5. Explain how the lynching can be shown with actual historical documentation to be a definite myth.
“Lynching in Omaha is not a myth; it definitely happened. The most known incident would be the 1919 murder of Will Brown. He had supposedly assaulted a white woman and was seized from the courthouse and lynched, then his body was set on fire. It’s far scarier than anything that actually happened at Hummel:

As far as it taking place in Hummel, it defies logic. Work on the park didn’t begin until 1930, and there are no documented lynchings in Omaha after 1919. Even if there were, Hummel is a good deal away from where people live, and so nobody would have bothered taking their victim all the way there when there are plenty of trees elsewhere. The road the trees lean over didn’t even exist.
As awful as this all is, there’s almost a sense of disappointment when you learn a place isn’t as scary as you thought it was. And so that motivated me to create a character who decided he would make some of the myths reality. Being twisted and a sociopath of sorts, he naturally doesn’t see that it’s not quite the same thing.”
(Side note: At this point, I did have to clarify with Jeremy that I wasn’t meaning the lynchings didn’t happen but that they didn’t happen in Hummel. He knew. But I was afraid of appearing like I didn’t know that so I had to put this note in here. Carry on.)
6. There seems to be more people coming out of Nebraska whom seem to be creating art that feels like it couldn’t exist without the locale. The most famous contemporary being Alexander Payne and Rainbow Rowell. Do you think of Hummel park as an actual secondary character in your stories? Like without this character the story wouldn’t exist?
“Hummel Park is definitely a character in four of the stories of The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories, to varying degrees. Without Hummel, two of the stories don’t work and could never exist; they came about entirely because of Hummel. “The Legend of Hummel Park,” the title story, is about a group of teenagers going to have their own Hummel experience. As people often do, they learn to be careful what they wish for.

“Deer Season” was inspired by something that happened to us while driving past one day–someone shot out our driver side window in our car with a pellet. It really ticked me off–it’s not cheap to fix a window, number one, but number two, my daughter was in the backseat. So this was sort of my opportunity to put myself on both sides of that event.
In “Unwanted,” which takes place on the edge of the park, it exists as sort of an evil entity, and is a motivator for an adult daughter to try to get her father, who lives alone, to adopt one of the rescue dogs she cares for. The story could exist without the park but I think it definitely adds a layer to it.
Great question; I like the idea of being a contemporary of Alexander Payne and Rainbow Rowell. 🙂
7. Remind me how the conjoined twins fit into Hummel again?
“There are nine stories in this collection and as mentioned, Hummel plays a role in four. The other five do not take place there, but they all share certain thematic elements, to a degree. It’s a collection of horror-type stories.”
8. Tell me a bit about your other published work and how it differs.
“I have published two novels. They are quite a bit different than each other, and far different from The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories, and I guess I’m a little proud of that. The Adventures of Braxton Revere is my second novel, published by EAB Publishing. It’s a first-person story about a vampire killer. Don’t let that scare you; someone told me it has as much to do with vampires as Indiana Jones has to do with archaeology and I liked that description! I grew up watching Universal Horror films and playing Castlevania video games, and reading Huck Finn, and so if you put all of those in a blender, you’d get something like this I think. Hopefully, it’s fun.

My first novel is On the Backs of Dragons. It’s an epic-fantasy. I tried to steer clear of save-the-world plots with it; basically, it’s about three children who have their father seized from them during a burgeoning war, and so they take off both to rescue him as well as warn the king that war is coming. Of course, nothing is ever easy. Ultimately, I think I wrote it because I wanted to feature Sasquatches as characters in a book… ;)”
9. Have you always written? Or is it something you started doing as you got older?
“. I have not always written fiction, in part because I am an idiot. I had done a few short stories in high school and enjoyed it. I can remember by senior year English teacher expressing that I might have some talent. I also wrote for the school paper. I did fine on it, but can’t recall the teacher thinking I had a lot of talent there!

I say I’m an idiot because I signed up to take a Short Story class in college, thinking I would learn how to write them. Instead, it was about reading them, and the teacher wasn’t particularly good, so it kind of killed my interest.
But I kept getting weird ideas, and stories. Eventually, it had to come out or I’d go nuts. So I started messing around with what eventually became On the Backs of Dragons. I struggled with it, with lots of failed ideas, and so it languished. What finally motivated me to finish it was my daughter. I read a rant somewhere that most adventure books feature a female character that does little but pine for some heroic man to tell her what to do, so I decided that my main character would be a female that would sort of boss around her brothers, and use her brains to outsmart her enemies on the way to saving her father. That all sounds rather Freudian, to see it written like that, but that was not my intent! So now my daughter will at least have Caroline, from Dragons, and Hermione.”
10. And appropriately enough for question 10 and fitting in with the blog theme, list me your top ten books.
“Wow, my top ten books. This will start easy and get tough! And I will be honest, I won’t try to cite things that make me sound well read or anything.

1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: My all-time favorite, I’ve read it probably a dozen times and I learn something new from it each time. It’s part of my DNA at this point.
2. Watership Down: A book about talking rabbits that is far better than it has any right to be.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird: English teachers have it right about this one.
4. The Lord of the Rings: Cliche, but true.
5. The Count of Monte Cristo: Dumas books are usually jammed with filler. This one is around 1200 pages in its unabridged version (the only way to read it) yet feels short.
6. The Chronicles of Narnia: I read these when I was 10 and they blew me away.
7. The Harry Potter series: I really didn’t want to like these, thinking the hype was too much. I was wrong. JK Rowling is my hero.
8. The Education of Little Tree: This book is a pack of lies–purported to be the autobiography of a young Cherokee boy, it turned out that it was written by an avowed racist. And yet, it works.
9. Buffalo and Beaver: This is one of many churned-out adventure novels for boys back in the 1950s or so, but I read it when I was 12 or so and I still have the desire to read it every few years, so it must be pretty good. It’s about a boy whose father suddenly shows up and takes him on an adventure as a mountain main in the Rockies. What more could a boy want?
10. Scrooge McDuck comics by Carl Barks and Don Rosa: I’m sorry, but these are just the greatest thing ever. They were once huge in America before we got all jaded and stuff; they remain so in Europe.”
I don’t have any sort of ratings system I give. So I will give the one rating that means a lot to me. I will be re-reading this book. (Obviously not until my to be read pile shrinks a bit, and time passes, but yes. I’ll read it again).

One response to “Hummel Park, Jeremy Morong, and thoughts on settings influencing stories

  1. Pingback: Short Stories & Stephen King | Eleven and a Half Years of Books

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