Julia Patt’s story ‘At Glenn Dale’ opens our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories. Here, she talks about legend tripping and the real hospital that inspired the story.Abandoned buildings have a kind of gravity.
I don’t mean seriousness—I mean a gravitational pull, not unlike that of a planet. A drawing in. Not everyone notices, but it’s there, something beckoning, saying: ‘Just one look… don’t you want to see?’
The really powerful places are the ones with a lot of history, maybe even a whole mythology around them, some of it true, most of it not. And those sites attract legend trippers: teenagers and young adults daring each other to take one step further inside, just a little closer to the shadows. Those are the places where kids go to prove themselves.
Like Glenn Dale.
Yes, it’s a real place, it really did serve as a TB hospital during the twentieth century, and it has stood empty for over thirty years. For a while, it seemed like the state was going to knock it down, but so far it has lingered, slowly collapsing of its own accord. I grew up about ten minutes from the hospital grounds, just outside of Washington, DC. As a teenager, I probably frequented Glenn Dale half a dozen times—a total dilettante by my protagonist Danny Fitzer’s standards. But even if you only venture there once, the hospital sticks in your imagination. Not only for what it is now and was then, but for the stories people tell about it, especially the ones that aren’t, strictly speaking, historically accurate. (I’m personally fond of the mental institution yarns.)
Starting this story—eight years ago now—I knew I wanted to write about Glenn Dale, but I never wanted to write about my own experiences with it. Nor did I really want to recount its history; that kind of nonfiction never seems to do the hospital justice. So I went for fiction.
Unsurprisingly, my first attempt fell far short. I’d tried to wedge a story into the setting. By the end of it, Glenn Dale took over the whole affair and completely overshadowed my characters and their concerns. I tossed the draft and wrote other stories for a while.
Then, during a visit home, I returned to the hospital, wandered around the buildings, and narrowly avoided getting scolded by the policeman who patrols the grounds on a daily basis (sorry, sixteen-year-old self). It occurred to me in the middle of walking the corridors and reading the various graffiti that I needed a protagonist who loved Glenn Dale. Who would go back to the hospital again and again, searching out its mysteries. Who did want to see, who would linger in the dark longer than everyone else.
In other words, I needed Danny Fitzer, who is not one particular boy from high school, but several, many of them legend trippers, all of them wanting to be the bravest and the coolest, which Glenn Dale gave them, in its way. But of course, I thought, that requires danger, real danger.
The earliest version of ‘At Glenn Dale’ began to evolve after that. There was still the matter of my pseudo-antagonist, Mark Dooley, and the hospital itself, which became like a third character in the story, and I spent much of my writing time trying to get the details of the place just right. This became another source of difficulty, as a mentor of mine pointed out: ‘You know, X would be a much stronger detail if it were really Y.’
‘But that’s not how it is,’ I would stubbornly insist.
Which is the trouble for all writers when we set out to depict real places, real people, and real events. There is the tension between telling it like it is and telling a good story. Real places are often inconvenient and annoyingly inflexible when it comes to layout and history. And although I had notes and pictures, even my memories and impressions of the hospital were inaccurate. I emailed and called a few of my friends to ask if they remembered such and such room or hallway or building.
They gave me different, sometimes contradictory answers. And the more we talked, the more I understood that my Glenn Dale was not everyone’s Glenn Dale. That all of us remembered the hospital a little differently, remembered even our shared stories differently. And the real often blurred with the legend, what we had heard blending with what we knew.
I stopped fussing over minutiae after that and made changes where it seemed beneficial. Consequently, the Glenn Dale in ‘At Glenn Dale’ belongs not to me or my friends or the historical record, but to Danny Fitzer and the story’s narrators.
And, of course, the ghosts.