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Renegar, Michael and Amy Greer. Looking for “Lydia”: The Thirty-Year Search for the Jamestown Hitchhiker. Cary Press, International, 2018.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this one. The cover, though eerie, is also a bit cheesy in that 1980s-Public-Access-TV sort of way captured so well by The Last Broadcast. The title makes the book sound more like an urban fantasy quest than a serious exploration of the topic. I was expecting some breathless “expose” loaded with hair-brained conspiracy theory and not a whole lot of fact.
To be really honest, I got and reviewed this because it’s the newest NC ghost story collection I could find. Mysterious Tales of North Carolina came out on April 16, 2018. This came out May 6. I wanted to have as broad a chronological range as possible.
Color me pleasantly surprised, then, to find out that this is actually the most rigorous and indepth investigation of a ghost legend, besides Ghost Stories from the American South and Tales from the Haunted South, I’ve read so far. While it doesn’t take the academic, sociological route that McNeil and Miles do, it does work through the story like a journalistic investigation. Renegar has spent decades looking into the Lydia legend and his work actually shows.
I’ve mentioned this legend in the past – it’s the Phantom Hitchhiker tale of Lydia’s Bridge, near Greensboro. In the story, a teenage girl named Lydia is coming home with her boyfriend when he loses control of the car. In the ensuing crash, she is killed. Since then, on rainy nights, she flags down unsuspecting drivers, trying to find her way home.
Renegar says that he first encountered it in Nancy Robert’s retelling of the story from 1959, but it’s an older story than that (he also mentions other prominent NC ghost storytellers). There were stories of people encountering “Lydia” that go back to the 1940s. Renegar met Roberts before her death and she confirmed that the name of the young man who saw Lydia home was a pseudonym, at the witness’ request.
After years of research into old newspaper accounts and interviews with possible descendants of the principles, the authors found a crash from 1920 that matched in many of the particulars. But in the process, they also discovered stories about more than one spirit at the site. They go over how these stories have evolved (and a possible source for the second story) and how they may have gotten mixed up.
They also talk about some other Greensboro legends (notably, Payne Road), albeit mainly to show how this one evolved. The focus on one legend helps show how such a story can change over time, almost beyond recognition in terms of the original tale. One of the more intriguing detours is into a discussion about how the show Supernatural dealt with the Phantom Hitchhiker legend in its pilot episode, and the episode “Hell House” (the creation of a tulpa), during the authors’ exploration of what kind of spirit Lydia might be (that was a rather creepy section).
There were a few things I’d have liked to have seen done differently. For example, I’d have preferred they had started out with the various encounters over the years rather than the identification of the original accident and who Lydia may have been in life. I also wish they had discussed the evolution of Phantom Hitchhiker stories, particularly since the advent of the automobile, over time a bit more.
The switch of the stories (and their re-intensification after a lull) over to the new bridge underpass could have used more discussion, as well. I also was never quite sure what the authors were getting at when they kept talking about how none of the drivers who drove Lydia home ever gave an address, even though there have been reports of complaints to the police by some homeowners about random strangers showing up at their doors.
It may seem odd that Renegar has a co-author on this one. I was saddened to find out this was because he has been having health problems in the past few years. He could probably do worse than to have this book be his last, but I hope he feels better soon.
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