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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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