Category Archives: History

Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #14: Haunted Fort Fisher

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Gray, Mark. Haunted Fort Fisher: Ghosts on the Cape Fear. 2014.

Fair warning: This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read so far for this project – not just for this year, either. The premise is simple – it’s a self-published picture book of ghost photos. The author decided in 2002 (this book came out in 2014) to start taking digital photographs around Fort Fisher to see if he could catch any ghostly phenomena. He also recorded for EVPs at the same time (Electronic Voice Phenomena: voices and sounds caught on a sound recorder that have no known cause and were not heard by observers at the time).

I’ve mentioned Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River in previous reviews. Fort Fisher is one of the most haunted sites in North Carolina, if not the most haunted, and some of the reported encounters have been quite frightening to the observers. This is most likely due to the two Civil War battles in 1864 and 1865 that led to the storming and capture of the Confederate fort by Union forces. Fort Fisher had been a major military target because it defended the one Confederate port late in the War – Wilmington. When Fort Fisher fell, so did Wilmington and the War was pretty much won (or lost, depending on your point of view).

This book is a condensed account of 12 years of Gray’s best photographs. Being a computer and AV tech, he goes into quite a lot of useful detail about what type of camera he used, and why, and its capabilities. Some of these pictures are pretty grainy, but in a way, that makes them creepier.

One thing I like about Gray’s observations is that he keeps them very grounded. He talks about how he’s only ever been able to get EVP’s at Shepard’s Battery and that the only ghost photos he’s been able to get were from the Sally Port (facing north) into the woods. Most of them have been in the woods. That he has observed these conditions adds to his sincerity and his observation skills. The only psychic sense he makes any claim to is having an idea when and where would be a good day to take creepy photos. Which, considering he’d done this for 12 years at the same spot by the time the book came out, isn’t that hard to swallow.

Gray also makes no bones about having taken a whole lot of photographs, but that only a few have ever turned out … odd. He also is not shy about putting his photos up, in the raw as it were, for readers to evaluate. And it’s true that some of these look like a straightforward case of pareidolia (like the cover photo). But then there are the others.

By far the most unsettling are the shadows and the photos where something is blocking the view of the background. Maybe the shadows are just sunlight coming down through the trees in odd ways (but they sure do look like people) and maybe the weird fuzzy things are just camera artifacts. But they’re not any artifacts I’ve ever seen in a digital camera.

At any rate, this was not a book I wanted to review at night. Even though it’s short, those photos creeped me right out. Just looking for what is supposed to be odd about them lent a strange kind of menace to them.

I don’t know what the author has captured here. I do, however, think it’s a worthwhile project because he spent so much time, over several years, in the same areas, photographing the same spots with the same type of equipment. At the very least, that lends itself to a cool study about light reflection and refraction, internal and external, in digital cameras. It also involves the kind of scientific method that too-often isn’t used properly by either believers or debunkers. I’m curious to see what Gray finds next. Just … don’t make me read it at night.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #13: Ghosthunting North Carolina

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Ambrose, Kala. Ghosthunting North Carolina. America’s Haunted Road Trip. Clerisy Press, 2011.

This was not the book I thought it was when I bought it (twice, accidentally). I thought it was about ghost hunter organizations in North Carolina. It’s not. I did find something like that, but I will review that book later in the month. And I did end up enjoying this book overall, but let’s address a few issues first.

So, what is this book? It’s basically a tour guide by a professional psychic of a selection of the most interesting and creepy paranormal sites in the state. I wasn’t especially thrilled at first to find out her profession. I found the introduction, where she went on at great length about her psychic abilities and such, very tedious.

It’s not that I don’t believe in ESP, etc., but these claims irritate me for a few reasons. First, there’s more than a little bragging involved about something that is really quite common (and often faked to make money). Lots of people have strange experiences with the supernatural or paranormal, or whatever you want to call it. I think there’s a strong probability that most people are “psychic” to some extent.

Second, it tends to Scooby-Doo folklore. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between dismissing a creepy feeling and strange noises in a house as drafts and bad plumbing, and dismissing it as a “vortex” or whatever New Age term sounds good. It’s still attempting to dismiss a mystery with an untested hypothesis.

Third, it tends to be culturally appropriative and sometimes bordering on racist. For example, I had my hopes up early on when Ambrose was talking about Somerset Plantation and the conditions for slaves there. Yay, finally some ghost storytelling that doesn’t fall for the usual Gone with the Wind mythologizing!

But then she fell into the same trap Tiya Miles talks about, where white tour guides in the dark tourism industry treat African Americans and their historical experiences as window dressing and entertainment for white people and their history. I can’t think of a single example in the entire book where she talked about black people except as slaves.

Especially disappointing was her repeated mentions of how slave conjure women may have used magic against their white masters, but she never gets into any details about that. And yes, that’s been researched. Remember the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans in Dixie Spirits? So, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the only mention of the Tri-County area is a rather pallid description of Blount-Bridgers House in Tarboro that doesn’t even mention Miss Minerva and her tendency to run the house’s elevator in the wee hours.

It’s not all bad, though. One of the frustrating aspects of Ambrose’s gimmick (being a psychic writing a book about NC ghost stories) is that she does do a fair bit of research and travels to a lot of different places in the state. I mean, yeah, there are holes and she never mentions the Frank C. Brown Collection, but she does mention the Rhine Research Center and interviews a bunch of people at these different sites. I actually found her postscript about her research path a lot more interesting than her introduction about her psychic career. Yes, I’m a nerd.

She talks in the intro about how she’ll use her psychic abilities to find ghosts at these sites (while making the apt observation that most ghost experiences happen when you’re not expecting them). Then half the time, she doesn’t sense anything in these places, anyway. Yet, those chapters are usually still interesting because she did her homework. I get that the psychic bit is the gimmick to sell the book, but it detracts from the actual work she put into it.

The story I found most interesting by far comes late in the book. It’s about the 1906 massacre in Asheville (which I’d never heard of before) of five innocent people by an escaped convict named Will Harris. Seems Harris blew into town shortly after his prison break, looking for his “girlfriend.” There was a difference of opinion about that relationship status and she got her sister to tell him she’d left town.

Not believing the sister, he got drunk and took her hostage. When found out, he fled into the street, where he went on a shooting rampage that killed five people and a dog. Tracked down by a very large posse, he shot back at them and ended up full of holes. Classic pattern for a mass shooter. And it led directly to Asheville becoming a dry town for decades (some Temperance campaigners successfully blamed the massacre on Harris’ drinking).

One of the things Ambrose notes is that Harris kept shouting he was the Devil (this, of course, made my folklore research ears prick up). But even though she has a previous discussion in which she mentions (without scraping more than the surface) that NC has a lot of devilish folklore, she doesn’t connect the two.

What she does do is mention that there are shadow people hauntings (among others, like the sound of screaming) since the massacre. She connects this to discussion of previous dark entities at other sites in the book. In this recurring discussion she makes some good points about how violent and unhappy events can lead to a sinister atmosphere and scary hauntings. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the kind of history folklore most often preserves.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #12: Cape Fear Ghosts

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Midwood, John. Cape Fear Ghosts. 2006.

This is one of two collections from the Cape Fear region that I read for this year. Cape Fear Ghosts is the older and more conventional one. It’s a collection of ghost stories with some photographs (some of them quite interesting, especially the ones relating to the author’s family history).

I really wanted to like this one. The Cape Fear region has a lot of history, much of it violent and a lot of it related to the Civil War. European history for the Cape Fear River basin goes back to 1662 and includes everything from Native Americans to pirates to Union blockades of Fort Fisher to battleships to hurricanes. There’s even a good business in old growth timber salvaged from the river.

The book reminded me, in overall format, of last year’s Tar Heel Terrors and North Carolina Haunts. The author has spent many years in the Cape Fear region. And he does have a lot of stories.

Unfortunately, he’s not very good at telling them in a way that is compelling rather than frustrating. This book could have used a good editor. There were times when he would be talking about being psychic and how he had witnessed a ghost as a kid, but the story would go on and on and end up nowhere. It was a bit like taking a tour through the Winchester House – lots of creep, but no payoff.

His account of his first ghost sighting as a kid is stuffed with so much extraneous detail that I wearied of ever getting to the point. The account of his father’s career in the military in WWII was potentially fascinating, but again, it wandered all over the place. And details like his mother predicting his father’s death (and supposedly being psychic, herself) needed to be in their own story. I don’t necessarily object to a lot of biographical detail if the stories are well-told, but these often weren’t.

Conversely, there were others that felt sketched out rather than given room to breath. For example, there’s one in which Midwood heard strange noises in the wall of The House in the Horseshoe (in Lee County) during a tour, but the tour guide (being deaf) couldn’t hear them and didn’t understand why the author was creeped out. And … that’s about it. It’s not even clear what the noise was, exactly.

But it’s not all frustration. The tale of Philip Alston, first owner of The House in the Horseshoe in the late 18th century, is bloody intriguing. After a long and nasty career that spanned the Revolutionary War, Alston got one of his slaves – a man named Dave – to kill a political rival. He promised that he would get Dave off and they would both avoid a date with the noose. Things didn’t go quite as planned when the authorities objected. After fleeing the area and other shenanigans, Philip was murdered in bed in 1791 by Dave, who hanged for Philip’s murder, not the rival’s.

The real payoff story that makes the book worth it, though, is the one involving Fort Fisher. Now lots of people include stories about Fort Fisher in their collections if they cover the coast. Fort Fisher is alleged to be massively haunted with Civil War ghosts (and perhaps some others). But Midwood tells a story about the fort that I hadn’t heard before and it’s quite chilling.

After hearing some strange tales told by couples who would go down there around midnight, Midwood and some friends decided to check the place out at night. As they arrived, they noticed 15-20 vehicles in the parking lot (some of them older cars and quite nicely restored), and some people heading from the cars to the beach, so they figured they were pretty safe.

Once they got inside the park, though, they encountered a whole flurry of Civil War ghosts, some of them quite frightening. After a bit, they figured they were quite done for the night and hurried back to the parking. Imagine their surprise when they found it deserted except for their own car, even though they had not heard any other cars start up or see anyone else leaving the beach.

In the coda to the story, Midwood notes that the empty parking lot was a common detail in the previous stories from the couples (he gives us one such account early in the chapter). It seems the road nearby is treacherous and has seen a lot of fatal car wrecks over the years ….

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #11: Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee

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Bell, Richard William. Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. M. Todd Cathey, ed. February 12, 2013.

You may ask why I’m reviewing a book about a haunting in Tennessee. The reason is two-fold. First, prior to its becoming the 16th state in 1796, Tennessee was western North Carolina. North Carolina’s territory originally, if someone fantastically due to the U.S. having no control beyond the Appalachians until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, extended to the west coast. Second, the afflicted Bell family originally came from a part of Edgecombe County that has since become Wilson County. So, the principles (perhaps even the ghost) were originally Carolinians.

The Bell Witch case is exceedingly famous due to being (allegedly) the only “confirmed” case of a person being killed by a ghost. This account purports to be written by Richard Williams Bell, the son of the alleged victim, John Bell. In it, Richard recounts the story of how the family settled in Tennessee sometime before 1810 (before he was born) and then came to be afflicted by a witch in the form of a spirit, from 1817 until John Bell’s death in 1820. Though the “witch” (who claimed to be a woman named “Kate Batts”) visited a time or two more after that, the persecution ended with the demise of John Bell.

This story didn’t really come to public attention until 1894, when a newspaper editor, Martin Van Buren Ingram, wrote a book entitled An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. This book not only incorporated Richard Bell’s diary, but used it as its sole primary source. And if you’re wondering who M. Todd Cathey is, he appears to be this guy.

This is where it gets sketchy. A fair number of modern researchers believe that the entire thing was a hoax and that Ingram made it all up. It seems that no one but Ingram ever saw the original copy of the diary in question.

They are likely not wrong. The diary has some serious issues with voice and tone and context. For a start, it does not read at all like a diary. It reads like an account written long after the fact.

It does not sound like a story written by a man who grew up on the Early American frontier (and boy, do the Bells have a ton of neighbors who have the leisure time to just show up to hang out with ghosts). It sounds like a late-Victorian dime store novel.

One of the really weird things is how the the diary portrays the Bells as living a life of plantation leisure, complete with a rather large group of family slaves. They might have done so back in Edgecombe County, but they wouldn’t have been doing it on the mountainous Tennessee frontier in 1817. The impression is of a fabrication by someone confusing Southern plantation life with Southern frontier life.

Further, the tone does not sound like that of a man who lost his father to an illness that may well have been poisoning. The tone of the hauntings (even though patriarch John is slowly wasting away throughout) is boisterous, with the family taking in visitors from all around and much merriment being made with the witch (who engages in as many pranks as she does actually malicious stuff aimed mostly at John). It’s weird.

There’s also a lot of casual racism in the text. The grossest thing in the book by far is the witch persecuting the family’s slaves while in the house because she complains that black people stink. Yet, no one in the family ever wonders why she is afraid to follow them to their own cabins, or why they act so knowledgeable about her folkloric origins and identity. The slaves are presented in very stereotypical and stupid fashion by the narrator, but hey, they’re not the ones being bothered in their own homes by a poltergeist. The Paranormal Activity movie series made absolute hay out of this kind of White People Are Arrogant and Dumb trope.

Lo and behold – the Ingram-made-it-all-up theory itself got debunked in 2017. Ingram had claimed the case first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1849, but that the article was retracted after John’s daughter Betsy threatened to sue. Yet, no issues of the Saturday Evening Post survived from that period and there was no mention of it elsewhere. Skeptics therefore assumed he had made it all up.

Still, there was a common practice back in the day for smaller newspapers to pick up articles from larger ones and reprint them (giving credit), much the way they do with AP dispatches today. Well, it turns out that on February 7, 1856, the Green-Mountain Freeman (out of Montpelier, VT) did just that with the legendary Saturday Evening Post article.

So, it looks as though Ingram (though he most likely forged the diary) didn’t make up the entire story out of whole cloth. There’s an interesting difference between Ingram’s account and the earlier one, though. The diary is quite sympathetic to Betsy, but not so the Green-Mountain Freeman/Saturday Evening Post. What got Betsy Bell so up in arms and threatening to sue? They never claimed the story didn’t happen. They just accused her of faking the entire haunting to win the affections of a local young man (whom she ended up not marrying in the end). What’s chilling is that John Bell probably died of poisoning. This account just blames it on the witch.

Oh, Betsy, you little parricide, you.

This is not a good book. Most of the time, it’s not very scary, either. But it is very interesting from a folkloric point of view. The “witch” is a classic witch-ghost straight out of North Carolina. “Kate” manifests as a poltergeist, a voice, and various spectral animals (the first form in which she appears). There is no real evidence (assuming she even existed) that she is ever human. The Bell Witch case is probably a hoax, but it’s also a really interesting example of why so many Tennessee ghost stories bear a strong resemblance to North Carolina ghost stories. They come from the same people and the same fokloric source.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #10: Ghosts of America – North Carolina: True Accounts of Ghosts from North Carolina

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Lautner, Nina, ed. Ghosts of America – North Carolina: True Accounts of Ghosts from North Carolina. Ghosts of America, Local Book 39. Stratus-Pikpuk, 2017.

So, there’s this website called “Ghosts of America” and it’s a sort of curated bboard run by internet publishing company Stratus-Pikpuk, Inc. (they have a bunch of other sites on various topics). It invites people to post their experiences with ghosts and any local legends, and lists them by state, then town (alphabetically). It’s not the only such site, but it is one of the bigger ones. According to its entries at Archive.org, Ghosts of America has been around since April 2005.

The publisher’s blurb on it says they originally started it as a way to test generating AI content, but changed up their plan when people started sending in actual stories. This would explain why the earliest stories on the site sounded creepy but unbelievable, with random elements grouped together in a single anecdote, and had no sources. The publisher says they only accept about half of the stories sent in and only the ones they think are real (i.e., sincere).

What the author (actually, editor) did was take these stories off the site, edit them lightly, and collect them all into single volumes by state. In this case, we’re talking about stories from North Carolina. Even a glance at the site (where you’ll find 1345 stories from North Carolina) demonstrates that the book is very much not-comprehensive at 37 stories for the state.

Some of these are quite creepy, such as a tale from Statesville about an in-law visit disrupted by the singing of a ghost girl in the attic. There’s another disturbing tale from Camp Lejeune about a house on base haunted by a malevolent gnome-like ghost/poltergeist. A former employee of Highland Inn in Highlands talks about
levitating knives at work and horrible dreams of amputations, and how she’d never go back. Another business, this time in Winston-Salem, is haunted by a “phantom family” that startles people as they round a corner.

Other stories include the usual range of UFOs (Tar Heel), battlefield ghosts (Salisbury and Bahama), several haunted houses (Louisburg, Ellenboro, Lumberton and Emerald Isle, among others), even a roadside revenant and a phantom hiker (not hitchhiker) from Tryon. An actual phantom hitchhiker gets off at her last stop (the graveyard) in Bladenboro. And one account from Elm City sounds a lot more like the narrator’s psychotic episode than a ghost story.

The folkloric value of a site like Ghosts of America seems fairly obvious. You are basically inviting random people to share stories around the internet campfire. This concept was more popular in the late 90s and 2000s, when the internet had fewer whistles and bells, but such sites can stay up for decades. They create an archive of raw data that influences and inspires new folklore, even as it preserves stories that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Sites where hired professional writers create content for the site are also useful, particularly those specific to a state. But they’re not as cutting edge as something like Ghosts of America or The Shadowlands. The latter don’t just record or revive or even embellish folklore – they create it outright.

But is there value in a Kindle “greatest hits” collection series of volumes by state on Amazon? I’ll confess that when I got this one, I was pretty skeptical, myself. I mean, the value to the site owners seems clear – they’re making money off repackaging these stories for a new audience on Amazon (after getting the original authors’ permission, one hopes) that helps to keep the site going.

What, though, is the value for the reader? Well, there’s the plus that one has a bunch of ghost stories from the site in one handy-dandy volume (there is also a print version). Further, by having a publication date on the volume, you can now use it as a permanent record of entries from the site. That can be mighty useful for tracking these tales. Then, too, not everyone wants to rush to the internet (even on their phones) to read ghost stories when they could do so by picking up a book or a Kindle. It would, however, be nice if there were a Kindle Unlimited version.

So, whether you check out the book or continue straight on to the site, strap yourself in for some scary shenanigans in North Carolina with this one.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #9: Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas



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Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas. Schiffer, 2009.

I interviewed the author for Innsmouth Free Press right after this book came out in 2009. You can still find the interview here. I am, however, a bad and lazy reviewer with a metric ton of books to review all over my house. So, I only got to reading and reviewing this one now. Ten years later. Sorry.

Anyhoo, I thought this book was a fun romp with some creepy photos and layout (that cover – [shudder]) and an interesting premise. Though there are other books on haunted theaters out there – such as the imaginatively named Haunted Theaters (2002) by Barbara Smith and Haunted Theaters: Playhouse Phantoms, Opera House Horrors, and Backstage Banshees (2009) by Tom Ogden – Lambeth’s book offers two unique features. One is that it’s the only book about haunted theaters in North and South Carolina. The other is that Lambeth has worked in the field for decades. This means she hears rumors and accounts that someone outside the theater wouldn’t ever know about.

To be honest, I found the introduction about theater history, terms and customs a bit slow. That said, it was also necessary to get one’s bearings and it did introduce me to the rather creepy tradition of the ghost light (AKA the Equity Light). Unlike the ghost lights of the book I reviewed the other day, this is a single light (often a bare bulb) intentionally left onstage (usually downstage right) whenever the theater is closed. The safety angle is that it provides illumination for anyone working in the theater after hours to see their way around. Hence the alternate name.

But there is also a folkloric element. Some theater people believe that every theater is haunted by at least one ghost. Why the light would be left on for them is less clear. Obviously, with the safety element, you’re actively trying to avoid creating one more ghost for the stage. But whether the light is left there to placate them, comfort them, or keep them out depends on your source.

Of the 21 theaters discussed in the book (starting, fittingly, with the Waterside Theater for The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama on Roanoke Island in Manteo, NC), 16 are in North Carolina and 5 in South Carolina. One review on Amazon complains that there are a lot more theaters from North Carolina in the book than in South Carolina. While this is true, it’s usually the other way round in collections about both states (Charleston and Columbia tend to hog the spotlight), and I’m looking for NC folklore, anyway. So, it depends on your preferences.

It also makes sense if you consider that Lambeth is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and was living in Charlotte when she wrote the book. Nor is she a live theater snob. Some of the theaters covered either started life as movie theaters or were later converted into them. Live theater hit hard times a while back, as vaudeville faded.

Stories in the book range from the unsettling to the hair-raising. The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC, for example is haunted by the ghost of an escort named Nettie Dickerson. It seems Nettie was unhappy about being considered little better than a high-class prostitute and was also a bit reckless. She liked to lean against an external iron balcony of the hotel during thunderstorms. One night, a bolt of lightning struck the balcony, “killing her instantly.” She’s been there ever since.

Many of these theaters are in older buildings that were allowed to fall almost to ruin at some point. They have a lot of history and, doubtless, lingering structural issues. However, Imaginon: The Joe and Joan Martin Center for children’s theater in Charlotte was built in 2005 out of recycled materials – and there are many reports of it’s being haunted by at least one child or teenage ghost. So, age and relative decrepitude don’t always have anything to do with it.

Employees and visitors in these theaters report a variety of phenomena such as cold drafts, disembodied voices, paintings that fly across the room, lights, rattling keys, and pianos playing by themselves. One alderman who died in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic plays the pipe organ in the Old Court House Theatre in Concord, NC.

Patrons can also end up checking in and staying forever, such as an African-American woman who was raped and murdered in the upper balcony of the Powell Theater/Chester Little Theater in Chester, SC sometime during the 1950s (according to local legend). She reportedly causes nausea, cold spots and the sense of being choked in that part of the theater.

The author herself heard some strange banging noises when taking photos in the Dana Auditorium at Guilford College in Greensboro. She also includes a ghost orb photo from a backstage stairwell in The Paul Green Theater/Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill, and another one in the house right section.

All in all, this is a fun collection for this time of year. But I wouldn’t suggest reading it after midnight or in the dark. That cover alone is super-creepy and the contents deliver on it!

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #8: Dead and Gone: Classic Crimes of North Carolina

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Wellman, Manly Wade. Dead and Gone: Classic Crimes of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, 1954, 1980.

Apologies for this being so late in the day. As some of you may have noticed, the site has been down since last night. Basically, it was a case of WordPress and my service provider not talking to each other, an issue that crops up now and again. Anyhoo, it’s fixed now.

So, what to say about this book? Let’s start with the easy stuff. Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) was a reasonably famous and successful Pulp writer during most of his lifetime, about the level of contemporary Seabury Quinn. He was best known for his story collection Who Fears the Devil? (1963) about a recurring wandering protagonist known as Silver John the Balladeer.

Wellman was celebrated in his day, winning two Edgars, two World Fantasy and Locus Awards each, and a British Fantasy Award. He was also nominated for several others, including a Hugo. He was inducted into the North Carolina Writers’ Network Literary Hall of Fame in 1996.

He was friends with noted Mythos writer Karl Edward Wagner and, it appears, Harlan Ellison (who knew him well enough that Ellison had an unpublished story from him after he died in 1986; Ellison also acted as the auctioneer for his literary estate). His fiction tended to pastiche and crossovers for characters from such writers as Lovecraft and Conan Doyle. That’s okay. A lot of us have done that.

Dead and Gone won him a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in 1956, in the category of Best Fact Crime Story. Despite what I’m about to say down-review, it probably deserved it, especially in 1956. It’s well-written in the Pulp style of the day and has been greatly influential on the subsequent folklore for the ten stories he covers in nine chapters. There’s even a ghost story postscript to one (the Reverend George Washington Carawan, convicted murderer and possible serial killer of the Bluebeard variety, who shot himself in court in 1853). It was an important tick off my list.

This true crime collection is likely his best-known book now. At any rate, it’s the one you can most easily buy at the bookstore here in North Carolina (though born in Angola to missionary parents, Wellman died in Chapel Hill after many years in NC). Though there seems to be a bit of a revival of interest in his stuff (at least about a decade ago), along with the general resurgence of interest in Pulp and Golden Age weird fiction, he has largely fallen into obscurity outside NC.

Wellman loved his adopted state and that comes through in the prose in this book. He writes with a clear and easy style, for the most part – pulpy and engaging. The book is pretty well organized (though thematically rather than chronologically, which can be confusing). Wellman’s conceit was that he didn’t do any stories from after 1900 to avoid embarrassing the living. He didn’t do any before 1800, either – perhaps because he didn’t feel there would be enough concrete evidence from which to tell the tale.

Not that facts ever stopped Wellman from telling a good story. His considerable embellishments and frequent failure to cite any credible sources are rather the least of my concerns with this book. But you’ll see in a minute why I felt a need to mention them first.

You see, this book also makes it abundantly, painfully, scarily clear that Manly Wade Wellman, beloved (if somewhat forgotten) Pulp fantasy writer, was an unapologetic and vigorous fanboy of the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, you heard me right. There is nothing subtextual about it, either. Not only does Wellman go into a long-ish explanation in the book about how he despises the 20th century revivals of the KKK, but thinks the Reconstruction era Klan was a heroic band of outlaws dispensing vigilante justice to miscreant rivals (who are always described in not-so-vaguely homophobic terms), but he tells two stories in this collection about these vigilante murders. Namely, the lynchings of William Parker and John “Chicken” Stephens. And they are rhapsodic in their praise of … the murderers. It’s ugly.

The Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction times was operating in North Carolina. This order, not to be confused with the twentieth-century disturbers of peace who filched the name and the sheeted regalia, was seen riding in the gloom of Yanceyville evenings – “‘those here to day gone tomorrow ‘ gentlemen with flowing white robes, those speechless spirits,” they were described by A.J. Stedman, the Danbury editor. Dead and Gone, p. 142-3.

When looking at this sort of thing, especially in the current political atmosphere, it’s useful to consider two things. First, is this attitude racist? I would say, well, yes. Second, is it a dog whistle? Sadly, I’m inclined to think that Wellman was freely using the dog whistles of the Lost Cause here. In 1956 (another racially inflammatory time), that was, at the absolute best, dangerously irresponsible.

What’s astonishing is how little this is discussed even now. One 2013 Tor retrospective refers to him as “multicultural” due to his missionary background and claim to be part Native American. Um … no. Not even close. African Americans barely appear as more than scenery in this collection and when they do, they are thoroughly stereotypical.

That hasn’t dated well. But the Klan adoration society thing … that is so far over the line of “okay” that it Superman-flies over that line, lobs a nuclear grenade back onto it, pours on a little plasma from a neutron star, and then sets it on fire. There is no excuse or justification for this. Even “for the times,” it was pretty bad.

What is truly shocking is not his racism. Lots of Pulp writers were racist. Just look at Lovecraft.

It’s that people who, even at the time, claimed to be racially progressive (you know, like Ellison, who aggressively turned his political progressiveness into a huge part of his writing persona) either completely blanked Wellman’s clearly-stated bigotry or excused it with “Oh, tee-hee, that Manly, such a Southern gentleman. What a card.” Some of them are even still doing it. Even though he was espousing this attitude, in a book, during a time when the Klan was actively murdering people who just wanted to be able to live their lives in peace. And vote.

I shouldn’t leave out the fact that Wellman is downright vicious about the female murderers in his stories – notably Ida Bell Warren and poor Frankie Silver (who was most likely a victim of domestic violence and her dead husband’s vindictive family). No apologia for these gals. It’s okay if white women stay in their place, silent and demure, but God forbid they have sexual desires or just plain want to avoid being beaten to death. And it’s not like Wellman is any kinder to murder victims “Poor ‘Omi” or Laura Foster, who get slut-shamed even in the grave.

The thing is that this book is still in print. You can get it on Kindle. It’s charming and engaging in the storytelling, and it continues to influence how some perceive the ten crimes outlined in its pages. Wellman said he didn’t want to cause harm to anyone living when he chose crimes with no living participants. But I don’t think he tried hard enough.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #7: North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends

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Gritzner, Charles F. North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends. Blair (June 25, 2019).

I’ve been collecting stories about ghost lights for a while, and had even thought about working up a long article or chapbook about them. I was therefore eager to read and review this book. I was pleased to see that it had some 20 more examples than I had collected (or had at least listed as ghost lights), with a grand total of 54 for his book.

Gritzner has a set format (that’s a good thing) in which he lists each light, first by region, then by county and town, as well as by folkloric motif. Then he sets out the nature and known history of the light. He’s visited a bunch of these sites. Where he has, he discusses his visit there and the terrain.

He also brings up possible theories, most of them scientific (personally, I think some of these lights are a natural phenomenon that is currently unknown but possibly related to the local electromagnetic fields). He even has photos of the sites and maps of their general distribution in the state.

I wanted to like this book more than I ended up doing so. For a start, I found the Kindle version really frustrating to work with. Usually, I can access my Kindle library from the site remotely, but I had to download this one onto my old computer, which meant that scrolling through the book took forever. I’ve seen the print version, which is nicely laid out. I will probably just pick up a copy of that for future reference. It’s easier than working with the Kindle version.

For another, despite the author’s claim in his introduction, his list has some significant holes and I also had a few issues with his methodology. For example, while he lists Teach’s Light on the Outer Banks in Hyde County, he’s missing the famous annual Flaming Ship of Ocracoke from the same area. He talks about the Momeyer Light in Nash County, but misses two Middlesex Lights two towns over (one of them a railroad light and one a death omen). He also doesn’t discuss Vollis Simpson‘s whirligig folk art, or how it influenced local urban legends like Acid Park, in Wilson County. Coverage of indoor ghost lights is also pretty spotty, especially in the capital.

Gritzner talks about his background in teaching geography for five decades, yet divides up the state in some strange ways. He does so roughly along the giant crossroad of I-95 (north-south) and U.S. 64 (east-west). Some of these ghost light stories (especially the Maco Light-type railroad legend of the headless conductor, which appears in several forms across the state) go back at least to the 19th century, yet 95 didn’t exist before 1958 and 64 before 1926.

So, why would a geographer divide the state up that way, instead of the traditional geological way of Coast (Outer and Inner Banks), Upper and Lower Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountains? This leads to some puzzling conclusions like Gritzner’s claim that the Northeast has few railroad lights relative to the Southeast, even though Ahoskie (in the former region) has two major examples of that motif.

He makes some other odd assertions, such as that ghost lights occur only in remote rural places. But there are lights that appear inside houses and this condition is not even universally true for outside lights. Ahoskie and Tarboro, for example, are pretty large and established towns.

Gritzner’s research also comes across as a bit shallow. For example, he cites popular ghost story books as sources, yet shows little-to-no knowledge of local history books like those for Nash County that mention the Middlesex Lights. He mentions volume seven of The Frank C. Brown Collection, yet seems unaware that said book is part of a larger collection. This makes his conclusion that North Carolina has an unusually large number of ghost light stories (as opposed to the probability that North Carolina simply has a much larger and more coherent published collection of folklore than other states) questionable.

Further, there’s no mention of the ECU Folklore Archive, or the UNC Folklore Program at Chapel Hill, let alone the Rhine Research Center (in Parapsychology) in Durham. There’s no in-depth look at the geology of the regions and sites studied to get an idea of what kind of natural phenomena might relate to these lights. The author does look into the possibility of car lights in some areas, but doesn’t really look into how long ago the railroad may have put, say, street lights next to the tracks. Nor does he get into the complexities of possible double-refractions and other optical illusions, so his speculations mostly remain just that – speculations.

I’d still recommend getting this book. For all of its flaws, it is a handy reference, in a lot of ways, that hasn’t previously existed. I just wish it had a bit more methodological depth and range.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #6: North Carolina’s Supernatural Phenomenons

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Granato, Sherri. North Carolina’s Supernatural Phenomenons. 2018.

Before we get much further into the month, I need to address some of the dodgier practices in ghost stories and folklore writing (particularly of the self-published variety) to this date. They seem to come in two forms. The first is when a book (like The Beast of Rickards Road and the Ghost of Payne Road: True Ghost Stories of North Carolina or State of Horror: North Carolina) is actually fiction, either a novel or a collection of short stories, but presents itself as folkloric ghost stories.

I have no objections whatsoever to reading fiction based on folklore, and I will grant you that the line can get pretty fuzzy with some writers (Nancy Roberts, lookin’ at you). But there’s a line that authors like Roberts don’t cross, one in which the folklore is still the folklore and not a fictional story with completely fictional characters and a plot that is only inspired by the folklore tale. When I am looking for folklore, I want to read folklore, and I want to know that’s what I’m getting. As a reader, I don’t like being lied to and I don’t like it when authors waste my time. Or my money.

The other problem is when you get the bun, but little or no meat. North Carolina’s Supernatural Phenomenons is of the latter variety. It’s a smartly written book (though it could use a decent copy editor and typesetter – “phenomena” not “phenomenons”). It’s also recent. It even has a few stories about the folklore of the Coast and Inner Banks that I had not yet run across, so I can’t say it was a total waste. I did like the author’s writing style, which is both chatty and spooky where necessary.

But it is also ten pages long. And it’s a fairly padded ten pages, too. To add insult to injury, if I hadn’t been able to get it through Kindle Unlimited, it would have cost me $2.99. That’s a lot of money for ten pages of mostly fluff.

So, what do you get? Well, you get a few pages on the Brown Mountain Lights, ghost walks and haunted pub crawls in Old Wilmington, and an investigation of ghost children by a local ghost hunters group (North Carolina Paranormal Researchers) in Elizabeth City, and … that’s it.

If this were part of a regular-sized collection of a hundred pages (or even eighty) pages or so, I’d be fine with the book. The author includes some nice perks like what exit to take to find the vantage points for viewing the Brown Mountain Lights and where to find the haunted pub crawl in Wilmington. And knowing who is doing ghost research in Elizabeth City is also nice.

But that’s not a whole book. That’s basically a chapter being sold as a book. Looking at the author’s other works for the state (I don’t think she’s from around here), most of them aren’t much longer. It feels as though this one was written over a few evenings as a quickie cash grab. No one likes a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am when they were looking for dinner and movie, first.

If you want to check this out, I’d suggest doing so on Kindle Unlimited. You’ll get a nice quick read. But if you’re going to pay for it, be forewarned about what you’re getting.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #5: North Carolina Ghosts & Legends

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Roberts, Nancy. North Carolina Ghosts & Legends. University of South Carolina Press, 1959, 1967, 1992 (second edition).

We’re back with another Nancy Roberts book (according to her introduction, she had done ten by 1992). This one, however, is a special one for her. It’s her first book (originally titled An Illustrated Guide to Ghosts & Mysterious Occurrences in the Old North State) from 1959, but with a new introduction and six new stories. Otherwise, everything appears to be the same as the original.

Case in point: Remember that book I reviewed last year that investigated the Haunted Hitchhiker legend of Lydia? That story is here in its most famous early form as “The Lovely Apparition.” In retrospect, it’s not terribly hard to dope out that “Burke Hardison” is a fake name for the supposed informant (the young man who drove her home).

Lydia is not the only familiar ghost between these covers. The Maco Light, the Devil’s Tramping Ground, the Music of Roan Mountain, the Hoofprints of Bath, the Dromgoole legend, and the Little Red Man of Salem, among others, are all here and likely in the form that many North Carolinians read for the first time. There is also the story of the old slave who killed his master and buried him under a bridge, that I mentioned the other day.

In Roberts’ defense, her book was one of the earliest popular ghost story collections for North Carolina, at least for the 20th century. Her ex-husband’s atmospheric photos no doubt helped seal the deal for a lot of readers looking for an October chill. I would be very surprised if she had not pillaged the (then very recent, and not quite complete) Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore for fresh material.

I rode pretty hard on Roberts last year, especially her newer collection, but there’s little doubt about the influence she had on the spread of popular North Carolina folklore in the past half-century. I also have to say that her storytelling was better early on, albeit it was always high on atmosphere and low on concrete facts.

One thing that bothers me a tad about this revised edition is that it’s not entirely clear which stories are new and which aren’t. It appears that all of the coastal tales are new (I guess this includes the Blackbeard one). Maybe I’ll get a hold of the first edition and see how it differs from this one.

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