Halloween in North Carolina, Day #30: Ghost Tales of the Moratoc (1992)


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Carter, Catherine T. Ghost Tales of the Moratoc. John F. Blair, Publisher, 1992.


This is another one from the publisher John F. Blair, dating to 1992. It consists of 18 tales and is the author’s only collection. Most of the tales incline toward the romantic or sentimental in the telling, notably the two about Somerset Place in Washington County (“Charlotte, Ghost of Somerset,” which inspired the cover illustration, and “Blood on the Floor”) and Native American tales like the Tuscaroran “White Feather,” from Bertie County. I was a bit confused by how the two Somerset stories fit together, as they were each told without mentioning the events of the other, despite occurring in about the same time period.

It was nice to see some Tuscarora influence, for once, but odd to see a Cherokee tale about Spearfinger (“The Witch Hag of the Roanoke” from Martin County) so far east, albeit with new details related to the Colonial period. The same period also produced the Zorro-like “Phantom of the Forest.”

“Moratoc,” according to the author, is an old word for the Roanoke River, which originates in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and comes down through the northeastern Coastal Plain of NC to the coast. The name comes from a large tribe that once lived on the river’s banks.

There are several other stories that contain common folkloric tropes seen in other parts of NC. There’s a story from Bertie County of desecrated Native American bones in “The Restless Skull.” An ugly 1920s love triangle in “May She Rest in Peace” results in both women dead and the “spiteful” wife’s ghost blamed for hastening the mistress’ death. The author does not fill out the rather obvious Bluebeard-like subtext in the survival of the husband who played the two women against each other before marrying them in turn.

“The Oyster Shells” from post-Civil War Washington County is a somewhat more elaborate version of the “Fork on the Grave” trope, where a mean and ungrateful son is apparently frightened to death by his mother’s apparition.

You’ve got the “Mystery Lights of Tyrrell County,” also known as “The Death Light” or “The Doom Light,” as well as the lights of “Dymond City, Ghost Town of Martin County.” Washington County also has a spectral “Coach of Death” and a “Hanging Church” where mysterious tramps have been wont to kill themselves.

But not every story follows the usual NC tropes, especially the unclassifiably whimsical Christmas story of “Aunt Liza and the Sweet Baby Jesus,” from Washington County, and also the two creepiest tales. “The Little Red Man” in this collection should not be confused with the more-famous Little Red Man of Old Salem. The vicious being (which may or may not have been a ghost) that drives a poor family from their new home in Martin County bears a lot more resemblance to Redcap from Scottish fairy lore than the benign Moravian brother who plays gentle pranks on the living.

“The Rag Doll and the Knife” runs like a Twilight Zone episode and dates from the same period. It’s not necessary to believe the person who stabbed a rag doll on a pillow in lieu of a young girl hiding under a bed in Beaufort County was a ghost. The non-supernatural explanation is, if anything, even more disturbing than the supernatural one.

Another largely non-supernatural tale is “Brotherly Love.” It’s a gruesome 1950s true crime story about a Cain-and-Abel-style murder-suicide in Washington County, with a few ghost stories tacked on the end. Of all these tales, this one may be the most tragic because the tragedy was both unnecessary and inevitable, considering the personalities of the two brothers involved.


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