The Devil's Courthouse

A Southern Thriller

From Thomas Langford, The Times and Democrat


Local Author Spins Tale of Murder in the Great Smoky Mountains

By THOMAS LANGFORD, T&D Correspondent | Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2010 12:00 am

 The Smokies have fascinated Lawrence Thackston, veteran Orangeburg teacher, for nearly 50 years.

When only three, he often rode in the family’s camper with his parents, Dr. and Mrs. L.P. Thackston, and two sisters up to Pisgah National Forest for long weekends. Sometimes, only father and son made the trip.

He sensed a special elation from it all: the peaks, valleys, isolation and mystery – so much so that they became a lifetime indulgence. Now, this has evolved into a novel by Lawrence titled “The Devil’s Courthouse,” which will be released in May.

“Gripping” might be the best word for the story. Cole Whitman, a ranger in the Smokies, gets called in to investigate a series of brutal killings inside the park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because the first victim looks clawed and torn apart, black bears become the first suspects.

Then, as more maimed bodies are found, new clues suggest Cherokee Indians who live nearby might be the killers. The suspicion stems from the Native Americans’ mystic lore, racial tensions and even a old murder case.

An all-out manhunt with many surprising twists leads to a showdown on the steps of the ridge known as The Devil’s Courthouse.

First version 20 years ago

“I first wrote the story as a screenplay 20 years ago while I was still at the College of Charleston,” Lawrence says. “I learned a love of book reading from my mother. A story idea came to me, then the writing seemed to follow naturally. But never easy. Rewriting demanded hours of spare time to finish the script, then I began mailing it around.”

Three publishing houses all showed interest for several months, he said, but in the end, they sent letters saying they regretted not being able to publish it.

“After graduation, I put the script away thinking I would return to it, and started my teaching career. Doesn’t everybody have objects around his house he says he’s going to do something with but never get to it? After 20 years of English classes at Edisto and Edisto middle schools, I looked it over again recently and decided to convert the screenplay to a novel.

“In no time, my memory took me back to those camping days, and as I cogitated, the mountains just spoke to me and I listened.”

Lawrence emphasizes that it was not just a matter of writing. “I tempered my contact with experts in various fields with how I wanted the story to go. The book had to be believable, but not altogether factual. The locations and habits of the people are real and important, but my characters are complete fiction.

“I had three goals for ‘The Devil’s Courthouse’ – learning more about research, writing and publishing; getting the book into many people’s hands for different viewpoints, and last of all, creating a story that would not be burdensome but an enjoyable experience. So far, it’s been exactly that.”


 “There followed lots of interviews with different park rangers to discuss the different English dialects people up there speak,” Lawrence said. “One superintendent introduced me to a pig farmer who used the word ‘goozle-ere.’”

According to Lawrence, the pig farmer said, “When you take a pig to the slaughter house, you turn it on its back, take a knife and plunge it into his goozle-ere,”

“Another, a lady who ran a small store called ‘Manny’s,’ would look out the front entrance and ask, ‘Who’s that jasper?’ A customer revealed that jasper was their word for stranger. So went my education,” he said.

Lawrence says his years of teaching gave him the pleasure of living with classics.

“This includes the greatest – Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc., but also those of today such as ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger, and ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker. Ernest Hemingway has been an influence, too,” Lawrence said. “I totally agree with his statement that ‘less is more.’ No unnecessary description, conversation, etc.”

He said nothing would make him happier than to build a reading audience with his novels in the same way that Pat Conroy has done with the Carolina coast, and Charles Frazier with the Great Smokies.

Lawrence and his wife, Joni, live at River’s Turn near the rest of the Thackston family, only two miles out of town. In addition to the flowing Edisto River at one side of their house, a three-acre pond stretches on the other. Snakes, deer, squirrels and even coyotes are always close neighbors.

Other than work, the only things that take Lawrence away from that spot are his golf games.

“I think of myself more as a storyteller than an author. I love mystery thrillers, and have a lot more stories to tell if the world would like to hear them,” he said.

“The Devil’s Courthouse” will go on sale beginning May 2. A book signing is scheduled at Swift Books at the Prince of Orange Mall on June 3.




From Ken Burger, author of Swallow Savannah

Lawrence, just finished reading The Devil's Courthouse. Great story, well told.
You took me places I didn't know much about, then made me wish I wasn't there. I
don't know who killed more people -- me in Swallow Savannah or you in The
Devil's Courthouse! Either way, it was a great read and I congratulate you on a
job well done. Would love to get together for a cup of coffee and a chat. Let me know
when your school schedule allows. Sincerely, your newest fan, Ken Burger

From Charles McCain, author of An Honorable German


I'm enjoying your novel.  I'm just at the point where Cole and that obnoxious woman reporter have slept in the lean-to.  I hope she gets eaten by the critter. You have an amazing knowledge of that part of the world.



From Rob Neufeld, Asheville Citizen-Times

First official review from Asheville Citizen-Times. Mostly positive!

Lawrence Thackston, a South Carolina native, has revived the Judaculla monster. In his new thriller, The Devil’s Courthouse, he imagines a world of havoc, as horribly gutted victims indicate that the Cherokee beast of legend that may have stamped its signs on Judaculla Rock in Jackson County is back to claim its territory.

Thackston knows how to seed and pace a plot. He adds a good deal of interest with local place names, folklore, and nature observations. “See that uprooted sycamore,” Cole Whitman, Oconaluftee Station park ranger, whispers to Amanda Rivers, “Asheville Chronicle” reporter, on their hunt for the bear suspected of killing a fly fisherman.
A black shape was pacing a four-yard area back and forth. “Tiny grub worms,” Cole explains, “the little ones love ‘em.” That glimpse of maternal protection offsets the bear hysteria, and feels very nice—as does Thackston’s insights into Cherokee life. The glimpse also highlights the developing romance of Cole and Amanda, which follows romance conventions.

Many other parts of the novel follow conventions as well, including the soul of the story, its explanation of why bad things happen to a good world. Either the occult or psychosis is responsible. As far as the plot is concerned, you can expect the usual epic resolutions. You exit with a swimmy head, but not a touched heart.

I enjoy a good, thrill-filled ride, when it’s a roller coaster. “The Devil’s Courthouse” is a well-constructed roller coaster, with portions that go through woods and past museum panels. But in life, I want something deeper: real characters, insight into why good and bad things happen, and a gift of love. That doesn’t mean close down the ride.

--by Rob Neufeld

From Sara Marshall, Mountain Xpress


Book Report: The Devil’s




From WNC Magazine

Lawrence Thackston delivers an assured debut with The Devil's Courthouse. Set in the Smokies during the mid 70's, the novel draws from Cherokee folklore as the author pits journalist Amanda Rivers and park ranger Cole Whitman against an elusive murderer. While authorities dismiss recent killings as bear attacks, Whitman and Rivers find themselves on the trail of something far more horrifying, with a possible tie to the neighboring Cherokee tribe. Well paced, well ploted, but occasionally marred by overly ornate prose, it's a shivery autumn read.

--Joshua Simcox