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Williams, Stephanie Burt. Haunted Hills: Ghosts and Legends of Highlands and Cashiers, North Carolina. Haunted America. The History Press, 2007.
I have to admit that I didn’t initially have many expectations about this one. It’s smaller than the average paperback ghost book (5X6.5 inches rather than the more standard 6X9) and only about 126 pages, including the bibliography (I like bibliographies; too many ghost story collections don’t have one), with a fairly nondescript cover. And it’s about a relatively small part of Western North Carolina, which usually means the book will get into folksy storytelling without a whole lot of solid content.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit more meat on the bones with this one than I’d first thought. Williams does a good job of explaining the rather eccentric history of Highlands and Cashiers, starting off with the legend of their creation. According to this story, Highlands’ founders did some geographic calculations that it would eventually become a trade crossroads of the U.S. It didn’t, but it’s done nicely in the centuries since then becoming a big resort area in the hills. There are a few legends about the origin of Cashiers (pronounced “Cash-ers”). The most popular one involves a white stallion named Cash who escaped captivity during the 18th century and thrived in the area.
Williams balances the history and the legends rather better than some other authors I’ve already reviewed. I also like how she breaks up the reading with photos that are historical, informational and interesting. One particularly quirky tale recounts when the circus came to town, complete with elephants, and visited Highlands Inn in 1923. This story is confirmed by a photo taken at the time.
Williams also tells a pretty decent ghost story. There are outdoor hauntings like the Hooper-Watson feud at Cold Springs near Cashiers, which resulted in at least one senseless massacre, an eternally bloody rock, and a chilling tale passed down of heads on stakes. There are indoor hauntings like the dark shadow figure at the Log Cabin Restaurant in Highlands and rocking chairs on the porch at Kalalanta. And, of course (this being Appalachia), Highlands history is intimately tied up with bootlegging and law enforcement, since the cops were also moonshiners for a time.
This was the first book where I encountered the Cherokee legend of Spearfinger, who lived near the cliff-face now known as the Devil’s Courthouse. Spearfinger was an inhuman, shapeshifting witch that often took the form of an elderly matron of the tribe. She’d snatch any victim she could, but she preferred little kids. She’d sidle up to you and then use her sharp stone finger to remove your liver. You’d never even feel it at the time, but you’d then waste away over the course of the next few days or weeks.
Williams talks about how Spearfinger was used as a scapegoat for the mysterious illnesses (and disappearances) that plagued Cherokee children. Like most Pre-Modern people, the Cherokee suffered from a high infant mortality rate. For them, all the stories were real.
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