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Parsons, Elsie Clews. “Tales from Guilford County.” The Journal of American Folklore, 30:116 (Apr.-Jun. 1917): 168-200.
This is the oldest of the books that I’m reviewing this month and as you can see, it’s technically an article. That said, it’s a densely packed, 32-page article that has almost as much information as some of the books I’ve reviewed. Some of those books are also heavily indebted to this article, so in it goes.
The article itself collects various tales (62 in all, not including variations within a tale) from a specific county in North Carolina in the early 20th century. Parsons (1875-1941) was a pretty major folklorist of the day, collecting Caribbean tales, as well as an anthropologist concentrating on Native American cultures, so you’ll see her pop up elsewhere, such as with her article on animal tales. She was not a Southerner, let alone a North Carolinian.
What Parsons gathers here is a grab-bag of different types of tales. There are animal tales that may go back to Africa (notably of the Brer Rabbit type). Others are based on well-known European tales like Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare.” There are also some ghost stories.
There are several stories about the Devil, several about witches, and one about Bluebeard. That last one is especially interesting, since Parsons’ theory is that these stories originally derive from the Bahamas prior to the Revolutionary War, even though most of the storytellers were native North Carolinians. Canadian horror writer Nalo Hopkinson, whose story, “The Glass Bottle Trick,” is based on the Bluebeard legend, is originally from Jamaica, so Parsons may have been on to something. The Bluebeard legend is also popular in NC and appears in several of the North Carolina collections I’ve read.
I’m not a huge fan of Parsons’ style. The way she transcribes African American dialect (the title aside, all of the storytellers recorded in this article are African American Southerners, whereas Parsons is white and a Yankee) has not dated well. It reads a lot more like Amos and Andy than it does like how real people speak and it’s pretty distracting.
I’m also not wowed by her relative lack of notes. She has an introduction in which she explains her Bahamas origin theory. She also gives (very brief) bios of her unnamed storytellers. These mostly include their ages, where they were born, and where they lived, and that’s about it. The most detailed bio is for the eldest, a woman who was born before the Civil War. That woman also tends to recount the most coherent and detailed stories.
Parsons also doesn’t do a very good job of gleaning info out of the storytellers beyond the surface level. While some of these are classics that have been told and retold many times since the article came out, like “Dividing the Souls,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Woman-Cat,” others are confusing and lack critical parts to them (like “Woman on Housetop” and “The Talking Bones”). Some would be quite chilling with a little more story flesh to them (notably, the vicious, disemboweling ghost in “The Spitting Haint”). But Parsons never seems to ask any questions or give more than the most basic footnotes to put any of them into context.
Overall, though there’s some material here still left to mine if you’re a horror writer, this one is mainly for the folklorist or the completist.
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