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Ault, Marie. Ghost Stories and Legends of Murphy, NC. 2015.
Murphy is the county seat in Cherokee County, in the Mountain region of the far-western part of North Carolina. The county is so-named because it was heavily populated by the Cherokee, most (but not all) of whom were forced to leave on the Trail of Tears. It has a lot of Appalachian history to it.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of this one, at first, whether it was genuinely a collection of ghost stories, a novel, a family memoir, or what. It turned out to be a collection in two main sections with a distinct literary conceit, and a non-fiction epilogue.
In part one, several children taking refuge upstairs in a house during a storm in the 1920s (for fear of the many floods that used to plague the area before several dams were built) decide to tell each other ghost stories to pass the time. One of the saddest tales involves a haunting sparked by a mother and her son who were swept away by a waterspout in 1906.
Many decades later, in part two, a bunch of teenagers around a campfire decide to trade some updated versions of these stories, as well as some new ones. The creepiest one, by far, in the second section, Prohibition era “Moonshiners and Police Shootout,” the author later exposes as mostly an urban legend. The shootout occurred, but though the legend has the moonshiners dying in a swamp and haunting/guarding it in a most deadly manner, it turns out they were later captured and put on trial for killing two policemen. So, no lethal ghosts as the two who appear in the story.
I’m not a huge fan of heavily fictionalized folklore (as is probably clear at this point), but something about using a campfire tale frame works for this book. Ghost stories, after all, are told and retold over the years, changing as they go. It helps immensely that while the characters Ault has tell the tales are fictional (she makes this clear at the beginning), the details they mention come from the research the author includes and discusses at length at the end. If you are looking for a folkloric and historical background to Murphy and Cherokee County, so the stories make more sense, you could do worse than to read the last part first.
Some of the stories are well-known, particularly the Cherokee legends of the Moon-Eyed People, the Great Leech, and Spearfinger. But even so, Ault manages to dig up some new details. There’s a photo of a sculpture in a nearby museum allegedly by/of the Moon-Eyed People and I didn’t realize Spearfinger had a male counterpart known as Stone Man (Nun’yunu’wi). Nor had I heard of the Legend of Hanging Dog, where a hungry young Cherokee hunter chooses to give up a chance to track down a wounded deer to save his trapped dog. He is then rewarded for his kindness when the grateful dog promptly finds the deer for him.
But there is more to this collection than Cherokee legends. For one thing, Ault digs fairly deeply into the checkered Civil War history of the area (the residents were about evenly divided between Union and Confederate, and bushwacker gangs terrorized the area during and immediately after the war). She also relates its bloody history of lynchings and even which trees are famous for their occurrence. Unsurprisingly, these parts of Murphy and its environs are reputed to be extremely haunted, usually by hanging specters.
Probably the ugliest story (though “Carson Lane Ghost” gives it a run for its money) is about a local slaver, Joshua Harshaw. Slavery was apparently unusual in Murphy, so Harshaw’s reputation was perhaps not the best with his neighbors. A legend that grew up after his death didn’t do it any favors. Like a real-life Ramsay Bolton, he reputedly would set his dogs to hunt down and eat alive slaves who were too old and/or weak to work. This may have been confirmed as a real story by recent archeological digs in a local cemetery that discovered bones gnawed by dogs.
It’s kind of a shame the author self-published, not because self-publishing is bad (I do it where it works for the material), but because the book looks self-published. The cover’s a bit too 1970s conspiracy theorist paperback basic, some of the typesetting is a little wonky (especially where the photos come in, though I liked their inclusion), and it could have used a good copy edit. I can’t help imagining this getting the Cursed in the Carolinas or the Haunted Hills treatment.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of good stuff in here, with sources, and Ault is an engaging writer (now I’m all curious about the one she did about Helen, Georgia). If you’re looking for a good overview of the history and folklore of the area, or just a good and creepy campfire tale, pick up this book.
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