Many apologies for the lateness of this. As some of you may have noticed, my site was down (for the second time in the month) for a day or two over the weekend. I’ll spare you the technical details, but it took a few calls and some shouting at my website provider to get things fixed. Unfortunately, that took up the time and energy I was going to use to do these reviews, my latest Supernatural review, and class work. So, I’m currently about five days behind. All this means is that we will be going into November with the ghost story reviews until we get the full 31 (possibly not every single day), though I will continue to post them as timed in October, so that all you need do is click on that month to get to them. Sorry about the delay.
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Schlosser, S.E. Spooky North Carolina: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore. Paul G. Hoffman, illustrator. Morris Book Publishing, 2009.
Having previously read another entry in this series (Spooky New Jersey) and found it underwhelming, I had an idea about the format for this one. The author takes stories from around a state and basically fictionalizes them. Even though she has a long bibliography at the end (from which she clearly took lots of “inspiration”), she doesn’t give a whole lot on which to confirm or deny her details. Even with a map supplied near the beginning, the stories often feel set in some vague Never Never Land. So, you certainly can’t rely on any of these as being the “true” account of a myth or legend.
Most of these stories were quite well-known, to the point where I often could tell where she embellished. I think only the ghost dog in the mirror (from Boone) and the healing ghost of the suicidal father (from Raleigh) were ones I had never heard of before as either a specific tale or a collection of tales.
I think my favorite was the Jesus tale from Bat Cave about an itinerant carpenter who is hired by a farmer to build a fence blocking out his neighbor, with whom the farmer has a long-time feud. Instead, the carpenter builds a bridge, reconciles the two neighbors, and heals the farmer’s crippled son, to boot.
Blackbeard’s ghost from Ocracoke, the Little Red Man of Old Salem, Tsali’s protective Cherokee spirit of Smoky Mountains National Park, the fictional White Doe of Roanoke Island, the Dare County woman haunted by her sister after stealing the ring off her dead finger, the Maco Light, the fratricidal man from Murphy “plucked” to death by his brother’s ghost, they’re all here. There are even some lesser-known stories like the (mysterious, but quite real phenomenon) Seneca Guns of the Outer Banks.
This narrative storytelling approach isn’t necessarily a problem for most people. But the other issue is that while some of these stories are well-written and entertaining, they’re not very chilling. I know for a fact these tales have been told in more harrowing ways elsewhere, but there wasn’t a lot of Boo Factor in this one. The illustrations don’t help in that they are folksy and interesting, but not eerie like the ones in Haunted Uwharries from last year. As I recall, Spooky New Jersey wasn’t very scary, either. There was only one exception (involving a Satanic hitchhiker) that I even remember, let alone remember it being unnerving (though, in fairness, that one was a doozy).
Just to check whether I’d finally become too jaded to get scared easily, anymore, by ghost story books, I read an article of ten scary, true stories told by law enforcement officers. It was pretty creepy. So, the fault, Dear Brutus, lies in this book. ‘Cause I ain’t that hard to creep out.
Because of all the embellishment, I found the extra detail in some of these stories less than compelling. It was most obvious in the Witch in the Mill story (from Edenton) that comes directly from Daniel Barefoot’s Haunted Hundred series. The Barefoot version does not have a daughter character (let alone one as a narrator) in it.
So, when I read a whole lot more detail in the Boo Hag story from Elizabeth City (mostly to do with the Haint Blue around the doors and windows keeping her out, and her preying on her husband to sell to her Boo Daddy) than I had encountered before in that legend, I was suspicious of the extra detail. Was it really part of the original Gullah legend or had the author added it in?
Other embellished stories suffered from the heavy emphasis on narrative and lack of analytical distance. The one about the Raven Mockers (from Cherokee), far from sounding like a straight-up heroic tale of a Cherokee shaman who protects his tribe from the titular witches (as you normally get in tales about Spearfinger, say), has the disturbing subtext of a vicious witchcraze straight out of Salem, Massachusetts. The author showed a similar disinterest in exploring the Unfortunate Implications in her tales about witches and cats. A lot of misery was caused by these superstitions (still is, one could argue), so I’m leery of signing off on being oblivious to their ugly real-life history.
The stories I liked best (besides the Jesus tale) were a collection of Mountain tales in the middle of the book about various kinds of premonitions and death omens. In one (from Pineola), a woman has an elaborate waking dream in which she correctly predicts a complicated series of events where her sister-in-law runs away with a man, who is then shot dead by the SIL’s own brother. In another (Watauga County), a old country doctor whose father dropped dead at the age of 62 after seeing his doppelgänger, has a similar encounter at the same age, in the woods returning from a night call early one morning. It doesn’t end well for him.
In his book on Scottish folklore, The Supernatural Highlands, Francis Thompson refers to people who have these kinds of precog waking dreams as “seers.” There’s quite a tradition surrounding them in Scottish Celtic lore. “The Coffin” (Fayetteville) fits easily into this tradition.
Are these stories badly told? No, not really. They pass the time easily enough. Just don’t expect them to be … well … scary.
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