‘Index of Haunted Houses’: Scary stories inspire La Jolla teacher’s collection of poetry
Local author and teacher Adam Davis has a story to tell. Several of them, in fact, and he delights in retelling them. He presents many of the tales in his new book, “Index of Haunted Houses,” a collection of poetry inspired by the scary stories he grew up with.
Davis, an English teacher at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla for the past decade, has been working on the book for 13 years. It will be released Sept. 1.
The 37 poems in his collection are part of a “long continuous project,” he said, started in response to the Great Recession and people losing their homes in the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007.
For Davis, writing is often a way to process historical events, he said, describing a separate sequence of poems in the book inspired by watershed moments from the 1600s through 2020. His poetry and its inclusion of “infamous figures” is “almost playing Telephone with American history,” he said, referring to a game in which a story evolves through repeated telling.
It’s “the idea of history as a parlor game,” Davis said.
“Index of Haunted Houses” won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize from nonprofit publisher Sarabande Books out of 850 submissions. Winning the honor, awarded yearly for unpublished manuscripts, is “pretty exciting,” Davis said.
Furthering his notion of poetry as play, Davis initiated a “poetry hotline” as a companion to his book. People can call (619) 329-5757 and use a push-button system to hear a “telephonic preview of the poems in the book,” Davis said. “Based on what number you press, you [are] then able to listen to a poem or story or be routed somewhere else.”
Davis was inspired to create the hotline because the book “deals a lot with analog technologies, like telephone service,” he said. “The first poem of the book is called ‘The Bell System,’ addressed to the women who voiced [formerly used] automated messages. I thought [the hotline] would be a fun way to connect with people through an antique technology.”
The hotline also features information about Davis’ book. “It functions in a little way like a national reading tour,” he said.
He said he has received calls from all over the United States and from two foreign numbers as well, with participants spending an average of six or seven minutes listening to some of the 30 minutes of recorded material.
The hotline also offers the opportunity to leave a message. “I’ve got some rather random and interesting messages left by strangers all across the country,” Davis said.
He leaves the messages unreturned, likening the process to a confessional. “I like to preserve the anonymity on some level,” he said. “They’re just sending it out into the ether.”
Davis modeled his poetry after the ghost stories that have intrigued him since his youth. “I love ghost stories,” he said. “I look at [them] as being our authentic American mythology. Ghost stories have often been used throughout the decades in America to impart social knowledge to people.”
Davis said his favorite tale is “The Babysitter,” which originated in the 1960s about a babysitter who receives repeated calls to check on her young charges, only to learn the calls are coming from inside the house. Davis said he enjoyed the component of the story that “touches on parental fears, the fear of technology — before the days of Caller ID.”
Davis recalled another story as lesson, about a man who breaks free from jail and attacks two teenagers canoodling in a car. “That’s a huge cautionary tale, that teenagers shouldn’t be left alone,” he said. “Rather than telling them the dangers of intimate activity, you tell them there’s a hook-handed bogeyman. I find it fascinating to look at that.”
Davis said he also is “dabbling in essays and nonfiction” and has completed a draft of a novel about the story of a missing industrial magnate as told by his former psychologist, keeping with the theme of secondhand narratives Davis is drawn to.
Davis said his family told stories as a way of communicating. “Every family event was them sitting around a big table telling story after story after story and me listening,” he said. “It keeps things interesting.”
He said he’ll keep writing for a long time. “I love the ideas of stories,” he said, “how malleable they are, how we adapt them for new eras and new times.”
Davis has several virtual events set up for “Index of Haunted Houses,” forgoing the usual in-person book tour due to coronavirus-related restrictions. The events include an online reading Saturday, Aug. 29, during the San Diego Festival of Books.
To order “Index of Haunted Houses,” visit bit.ly/davispoetry. ◆
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