vigilante roller coaster edition


I was dealt a savage, savage emotional blow this week when I learned that one of the preeminent cultural institutions of my childhood will soon be no more.

I speak, of course, of the only fifty-year-old indoor roller coaster in the world to feature scenes from a possibly apocryphal vigilante gang attack on the guano mining town of Marmaros Missouri in the late 1880s: Silver Dollar City\’s Fire in the Hole.

For the most part, the Silver Dollar City theme park is a perfect time capsule of my childhood. There are a few new rides and an app, but you can still dip candles under the watchful eyes of forceful older women in frontier garb, get ineffectually robbed on the train ride, and vomit behind an old-timey advertisement for miracle elixirs due to a combination of heat exhaustion and funnel cake. It was a fixture of my childhood summer, and as tacky and not exactly unproblematic as it can be, I still love the place in all its over-the-top bonkersness.

And for as long as I\’ve been aware of any kind of regional kid culture, that culture has included Fire in the Hole, a dark ride/coaster combo with a bizarrely specific angle that I swear I\’m not making up. They\’ve made a few updates to the ride, like removing the Bald Knobber (stay with me, I\’ll explain) swinging from a noose, and the lap bar rattles a little more uncomfortably against a middle-aged abdomen. Still, the overall experience has remained more or less untouched.

Little kid lore of the late eighties even opened up the possibility that the ride was haunted. In 1980, a car got accidentally diverted onto a maintenance track, and a man suffered a fatal head injury on low-hanging metal bars (true story). It was a terrible accident and the park made immediate corrections to be sure it would never happen again.

However, the remixed version we passed around in third grade made it a much more plausible reoccurrence (as any great haunted attraction story should be). We placed the fatality at the ride\’s first major drop, where train noises blare and a circular light appears to fly at the cars. It\’s supposed to look like there\’s a train rushing straight at you, and at the last moment, the track drops and everybody yells and shriek-giggles. Our urban rural legend held that the man inadvertently stood up at exactly the wrong moment and was decapitated by the train light. Seriously, somebody had a brother who knew him / a cousin that worked there / a babysitter who was waiting in line that day, you know?

Once you\’ve heard it, it becomes absolutely impossible not to think about standing up at that moment on the ride, even when you\’re forty years old and you know it didn\’t actually happen and isn\’t even physically possible.

Overall, though, despite the plausible haunting, the ride is more kitsch than adrenalin. It is dark, but there are only three drops (the train collision, an illusion of crossing the mangled and on-fire Kinney Bridge, and the final splashdown). Otherwise, it chugs along at a leisurely powered pace so you can take in the badly outdated animatronics.

But the thing that I unreservedly adore about Fire in the Hole isn\’t its coaster cred. I\’m not even a roller coaster person. I\’m just so thoroughly enchanted by how weird it is. This is the ride\’s context: the Bald Knobbers were a vigilante gang that formed in response to post-Civil War unrest in southwestern Missouri that became about as violent as the problem they were originally trying to solve (a nice detail: I mentioned the burning Kinney Bridge setpiece earlier. Nat N. Kinney was the original Bald Knobbers ringleader). If you were to see a picture of their masks, you\’d probably assume this was some kind of proto-KKK situation, and fair enough. On the one hand, most of the original gang fought for the Union (Missouri was and is complicated). On the other, the whole masked night riding thing was logistically if not ideologically of a piece with other extralegal and overtly white supremacist violent groups active in the region, so I don\’t know if there are dots to be connected there or not.

Now, the Bald Knobbers were active around the time of the demise of the town of Marmaros. Marmaros was home to a fairly successful batshit mining operation (that\’s literal and not adverbial batshit) until it burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. The fire happened because either: the Bald Knobbers did it, a tavern brawl got out of control, or (my favorite) everybody got burn-it-down mad when a damn Canadian* bought the town\’s tourism industry\’s crown jewel, Marvel Cave.

* Canadian friends: please know that I love you and your functional civil society! I also LOVE some cave drama (#savefloyd). 

So, some park designer knew about this unverified local history and under the influence of some strange moon decided that it would make an excellent background for an indoor rollercoaster, and I am so here for that. I\’m not alone on this, either—people love this oddball ride, and my social media has been just an outpouring of shock and grief from childhood acquaintances over the announcement that this summer is its final season. I mean, generations of Ozarkers will automatically respond to, \”Red Flanders, you come back here and put on yer pants!\” with a perfect line reading (\”I ain\’t got no pants, Sadie, the dang Bald Knobbers stole \’em!\”).

So I guess my point for everyone here who creates art is to trust yourself when you make something you aren\’t sure you should ever show anyone because it\’s too specific and weird. Maybe it’ll turn out to be your Fire in the Hole.

Speaking of.

The Writing

I am so pleased/stunned to tell you my story \”The Monster Fucker Club\” is going to appear in Apex Magazine later this year! Yes ma\’am, that is a thing that is happening!

More good writing news—I\’m so proud to be included as a guest contributor in an upcoming edition of Mary Rajotte\’s wonderful gothic zine Frightmarish, with an original flash piece and a companion nonfiction piece. Mary\’s Patreon is great too, and I 1000% recommend subscribing. 

As far as other current projects go, I\’m still hacking away at my contest story. I admittedly got a bit sidetracked with all that Fire in the Hole business up there, but no regrets, I needed to process. 

The Reading
I finished How to Sell a Haunted House, which made me bawl like a small babe. It’s a great horror novel, but it’s also a really touching story about healing from loss. With, like, murder puppets.

I’m currently in the middle of Several People are Typing by Calvin Kasulke, and it\’s hilarious. The whole thing is a Slack transcript, and the premise is that an office worker inadvertently uploads his consciousness into Slack and can’t escape. It’s extremely funny and pretty biting remote work satire. 

Next up, I\’m so excited for Kathleen Palm\’s middle-grade novel Into the Gray and Christi Nogle\’s short story collection, The Best of Our Past, The Worst of Our Future. A friend also talked me into reading Gravity\’s Rainbow and it\’s been sitting on my nightstand for a while now, patiently waiting for me to work up the nerve to crack it open.

The Watching
I\’ve seriously been passing out as soon as my daughter goes to bed most nights this week. We\’ve managed a few episodes of What We Do in the Shadows, which we\’re behind on. I just haven\’t been as into the most recent season, and I don\’t know if it\’s me or the show. I miss Colin Robinson a lot more than I guess I realized I was going to. I also used to relate to the character of Guillermo so painfully. But, uh, things changed at work, and now I\’m Nandor, so.

The Living
Well, it\’s just been work, work, and more work. I need to work on having more to say here besides I\’m so tired and I work all the time. I guess that\’s my challenge between now and the next time I send one of these.

Until then, much love and thanks for reading this. Get to Silver Dollar City this summer if you can.

Keep up with me.

No promises.


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