Today I’d like to welcome Suzanne Johnson, the author of the absolutely fabulous urban fantasy Sentinels of New Orleans series. Her latest book is Elysian Fields (review here) and if you love urban fantasy (or New Orleans stories, or terrific heroines) check out this series! (If you love vamps, get Redemption)
Supernatural New Orleans: A Few Theories
by Suzanne Johnson
Long before Anne Rice established New Orleans as a haven for world-weary vampires, my adopted hometown had been a hotbed of supernatural activity and legend.
When I began writing my Sentinels of New Orleans series, which began with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, it was a given that NOLA would be my setting. Even without the hurricane, however, it’s hard to go wrong setting a paranormal story here. I don’t know if there has ever been a study of the most popular setting for paranormal fiction, but I’d be shocked if New Orleans wasn’t No. 1 in the U.S., perhaps the world.
Why? I came up with four reasons the Crescent City (called this due to the crescent shape of the Mississippi River as it winds through the metro area) is such a paranormal hub. In no particular order….
1. Age. It’s no Rome or Paris or London, but by U.S. standards, New Orleans is a very old city, founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, in 1718. What’s more unusual, it has retained much of its original architecture thanks to a total miscalculation by military leaders during the Civil War. The city was the largest in the South, a major port that controlled the Mississippi River, and the economic hub of the Confederacy. But the military leaders put most of the defense around the northern perimeter and left the river itself defended only by three small forts. The Union ships sailed right on in and took control of the city early. So unlike Atlanta and other Southern cities, New Orleans was not burned to the ground. In fact, the city itself saw no fighting at all.
As a result, the French Quarter is still intact and its crumbling buildings might have been repaired a bazillion times over the centuries, but they retain the flavor of the original French colony and, later, Spanish outpost. It’s the most European of American cities, and it’s hard not to walk a deserted side street late at night and not feel the ghosts of the past around you.
2. Population. As a port city, New Orleans has always been peopled by a large array of nationalities. French and Spanish colonists were there early, as well as Italians who worked the docks and Irishmen the wharves. There was also a very large population of free people of color in New Orleans, many of whom arrived from the French colonies of the West Indies. Most prominent among them were those from what today is Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They came to New Orleans to start a new life, in one of the only Southern ports where they were legally allowed to own land and businesses, and brought with them voudou, their version of the African belief system. New Orleans and “voodoo” became linked, and its mysticism gave rise to many legends and traditions.
Today, the voodoo shops and museums are mostly tourist traps, but in the parishes outside the city, and some of the back rooms within it, it’s still practiced.
3. Violence. In the last decade, New Orleans has pretty much reigned as the per-capita murder capital of the U.S. It’s nothing new, however. In the early 1800s, when the privateer/pirate Jean Lafitte ruled his kingdom of a thousand ruffians and sailors just south of the city, New Orleans had already established a reputation for violence. My own theory is that the city’s violence has stemmed from the unholy trinity of population, weather, and poverty.
Lots of nationalities means a lot of clashing ideals and beliefs. Port cities tend to violence, as ships’ crews and dockworkers let off steam, usually fueled by plenty of alcohol. Where people die violently, spirits linger. New Orleans’ violent history has contributed to its generally being considered the most haunted city in the U.S. (And for you Sentinels fans, the ghost of Jean Lafitte himself, no stranger to violence, is believed by many to haunt the Lafitte Blacksmith Shop Bar on lower Bourbon Street.)
4. Geography. There’s a joie de vivre in South Louisiana unlike any I’ve encountered in my moves to different parts of the country, and I attribute it to the fact that there’s a fragility to living there. I mean, if you live in a bowl-shaped city below sea level, in the direct path of Gulf hurricanes, and protected by a shaky levee system, there’s a “party hard because it all might be gone tomorrow” attitude that keeps the city feeling more like a Caribbean outpost than a captain of American industry. Even before things like levee systems were invented—and before the advent of air conditioning—half the city’s population could die of mosquito-borne yellow fever on any given summer. Folk superstitions and urban legends stemming from this “here today-gone tomorrow” attitude are widespread. Add the surrounding swampland, fog on the river thick enough to drown in, the abundance of massive live oaks and Spanish moss, and the world’s largest population of alligators, and you add an extra creep factor where the paranormal thrives.
Have you been to New Orleans? What do you think most evokes the paranormal there? (I haven’t even mentioned the above-ground cemeteries!)
About Suzanne JohnsonOn Aug. 28, 2005, Suzanne Johnson loaded two dogs, a cat, a friend, and her mom into a car and fled New Orleans in the hours before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Four years later, she began weaving her experiences and love for her city into the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series, beginning with Royal Street (2012), continuing with River Road (2012), and now with Elysian Fields (August 2013).
She grew up in rural Alabama, halfway between the Bear Bryant Museum and Elvis’ birthplace, and lived in New Orleans for fifteen years—which means she has a highly refined sense of the absurd and an ingrained love of SEC football and fried gator on a stick.
She can be found online at her website or her daily blog, Preternatura. As Susannah Sandlin, she writes the best-selling Penton Vampire Legacy paranormal romance series and the recent standalone, Storm Force.
Suzanne is giving away a grand prize of an iPad 2 and five $20 gift cards to winners’ online retailer of choice. All prizes are open internationally!
To enter, use the Rafflecopter below.