Root Doctors and Savannah

This is part of an interview done for a zombie magazine that never launched. Most of it deals with research — I thought people might find it interesting. Or not!

The premise: Dead bodies aren’t staying dead.

Turn on the news and there’s another story about somebody waking up in an autopsy suite just as the Y incision begins. That was the trigger for PLAY DEAD.

The David Gould character bounced around in my head for years. I liked the idea of someone dealing with life and death issues on the job while personally trying to keep from falling apart. A character whose reckless malaise hides a tragic past. This book seemed a good place to finally put him. His partner, Homicide Detective Elise Sandburg, came about in a totally different way. She’s an example of how research sometimes drives the plot, and how it can even help develop
characters. I had a vague idea of who she was, but it wasn’t until I started doing in-depth research that she solidified and I came up with the plan to make her the daughter of a famous root doctor. From the beginning I knew she’d been abandoned in a cemetery as an infant, but
everything else about her came from researching Gullah culture.

I wanted the plot to involve voodoo, but New Orleans seemed too obvious. I settled on Savannah. In researching the area I discovered that a fairly small region of South Carolina and Georgia was home to a group of people called Gullah — African-Americans whose ancestors had
been brought over on slave ships from the southwest coast of Africa. This coastal Atlantic Ocean Lowcountry is made up of hundreds of small islands. It’s a world of water and flat marshland,shanties, and sandy lanes leading into dark vegetation. Weathered churches, and desolate cemeteries. Gullah culture is embedded in the belief of herbalism, spiritualism, and black magic. While other regions call it voodoo, ubia, etc. the Gullah call it the root, and practitioners are called root doctors.

Back in the eighties I found myself fascinated by Wade Davis’ book THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. In his search for the poison used to create zombies, his journey eventually led him to the puffer fish and tetrodotoxin. Davis discovered that many of the zombies had committed crimes previous to their zombification, and their new, lobotomized state was much cheaper than incarceration. Creating zombies was also something witch doctors did in order to prove their power and to gain status. The practitioner would use a concoction to secretly put the victim in a state that mimicked death, then dig up the “body” in the middle of the night, bringing it back from the dead.

It’s also interesting to note that tetrodotoxin is a powerful painkiller, and has recently moved into a second phase of clinical trials in Canada.

I recall reading an article stating that scientists hope to one-day use TTX to put astronauts in the state of suspended animation for deep pace travel.

Eating of puffer fish is big in Japan. 100 – 200 people die from it a year. I came across an article claiming that macho guys like the risk, but they also get a pleasant buzz from the toxin. I just took that another step. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll hear of TTX being used recreationally.
I spent months researching PLAY DEAD. Too much time — but I kept coming upon more and more fascinating things about Savannah and the area. I guess I was having too much fun. One day I suddenly realized I had a book due in a few months, and I’d barely started it. At the
same time I was frustrated because I felt I still didn’t know enough. Every police department has its own rules and methods, so the police procedural aspect alone took a lot of research. Then I had a city I knew nothing about, plus two cultures — Gullah and Southern — that were also new to me. To that add a large dash of zombies and TTX!

Many people have asked me about the Savannah tunnels. They really exist, and were used to transport plague victims from hospitals to cemeteries. Here is what someone who had been in them told me: “It was the nastiest place I have ever been. The city sewer system was
leaking raw sewage, and there were more cockroaches than you have ever seen in your entire life. I’m talking billions covering every nook and cranny. They are dark and very cramped, nothing like the catacombs of Paris. The bricks and ballast literally crumble if you
lean against them, and I would urge no one to ever go there.”

Another person who peeked in from the Candler Hospital basement said this: “It was sealed off, but the opening could be opened and closed. The walls are brick, rounded ceiling… In the basement was an OLD cage elevator, and a lot of equipment, like old wooden wheelchairs.”

That’s some crazy stuff!

watch a video of savannah footage on my website:

go to video, then play dead trailer

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About Kathleen Eagle

Kathleen Eagle is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of over forty novels.
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3 Responses to Root Doctors and Savannah

  1. Helen Brenna says:

    Wasn’t Savannah the setting for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?

  2. anne frasier says:

    helen,yes it was. it really brought a lot of tourism money to the city, but they’ve pretty much milked that dry.

  3. Isn’t it amazing what you stumble upon while you’re researching a book? I had a serious plot/motivation problem with the last book. I knew it was a problem when I proposed it, knew I was going to run up against it in the writing but I kept going, figuring I was headed for a brick wall but I’d deal with it when I got there. I was researching something else on the ‘net, which took me to the newspaper Indian Country Today online, and there it was! The solution, part of a whole series of articles that had to do with Indian gaming.

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