Our First Southern President and the Paranormal

Part 1: Washington’s Prophecy

 "I had seen a vision wherein had been shown to me the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States." George Washington

“I had seen a vision wherein had been shown to me the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States.” George Washington

Let’s see: we have looked at Thomas Jefferson and UFO’s and Abraham Lincoln and just about all things paranormal; let’s look at another Southern president’s supernatural encounters: George Washington.  Since there is quite a bit out there about George and the uncanny, this promises to be a two part-er, at least.

Today we’ll look at the Washington Prophecy, which is as important as it has been underreported.  This obscure incident from the  American Revolution uncannily fore-shadows, not only the American Civil War, but possibly both world wars as well.  For now for more about Washington and the Civil War, see Chapter 16 of Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War.

Let us go back, then, to the winter of 1777, the “year of the three sevens” and the time when the American Revolution almost collapsed.  It was a starving time for Washington’s army at Valley Forge: the troops were ill fed, ill clothed and freezing in their hovels.  The Continental Congress, as Congress does today, did nothing to help.  The well fed politicians were little concerned with those who were fighting and dying at the front; they were very concerned about protecting they and their rich patron’s wealth and privilege and not the Republic.  The troops were starving, barefoot, were not being paid and on the verge of mutiny.  Washington begged and pleaded for blankets, clothing and food, all to no avail; he was in fact on the verge of resigning as commander of the army.  Against this background occurred an uncanny incident which has long been rumored about, but which we have a lone witness to its truth.

During the winter of 1777, General Washington had good cause to pray. It may be that the prophecy was in answer to these prayers

During the winter of 1777, General Washington had good cause to pray. It may be that the prophecy was in answer to these prayers

Our sole source for this incident was a soldier named Anthony Sherman. His account was first published in the 1840’s, in an obscure journal now unobtainable at any price.  Fortunately, his account was reprinted after the Civil War in the National Tribune, a newspaper published for the benefit of Union veterans, mainly to enable them to get pensions from the Federal Government.  As with the VA today, veterans and widows were often frustrated dealing with the government that they had defended, fought, and died or were disabled protecting.  His account, having been told well before the Civil War, gains additional credibility thereby.

Sherman (no relation to the general) was an ordinary soldier, posted to Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge at the time.  One day, General Washington emerged from his private quarters, where he had been alone for some time.  Emerging visibly shaken, he began to relate what he had experienced to a trusted aide (Sherman does not say whom, but it was likely Alexander Hamilton). Sherman was close enough to the two to hear what Washington said, and what the general had to say remained seared into Sherman’s memory.

Washington, alone at the time, was in his office praying.  Now in normal times Washington was not an overly religious.  Washington was a product of the enlightenment, when most educated gentlemen regarded God (if they regarded him at all) as a sort of divine “clock-maker” who wound up the universe and then stood back and watched it move on its own.  However, the winter of 1777-78 was “the time that tries men’s souls” and that winter Washington if fact prayed quite a bit for divine guidance.

Washington's Headquarters, Valley Forge, where he is believed to have had a prophetic vision.

Washington’s Headquarters, Valley Forge, where he is believed to have had a prophetic vision.

Washington was in his office, alone, when he became aware of a presence in the room.  He said it was “a singularly beautiful being,” with whom the general tried to communicate.  After he addressed the figure several times, she finally responded.  The room’s walls seemed to disappear and his surroundings became luminous.

‘Son of the Republic, look and learn,’ she said to Washington, and then spread out her hand in a sweeping gesture several times.  Each time an angelic being dipped water from the ocean and cast it over the continents of Europe, America, Asia and Africa.  On the third such cast “from Africa I saw an ill-omened specter approach our land,” Sherman heard Washington say.  The imagery as reported later was complex; visions of war and destruction, the blasting of trumpets and other scenes which seemed to presage war and ultimate victory.  Clearly, at least part of this version related to the Civil War.

Not surprisingly, ever since this account was first published, there have been professional debunkers ever eager to disprove its veracity. One industrious researcher located the records of a young officer of the Revolution and triumphantly announced the story a fake, because the Anthony Sherman in question had been at Saratoga and not at Valley Forge.  Of course, debunkers always go for pat answers and the fact that there very well may have been more than one soldier named Sherman in service during the American Revolution never entered his closed mind.  Any researcher or genealogist dealing with old records is aware how fragmentary such records often are: muster lists and service records get lost, court house archives burn up in fires and the like.  But the professional debunkers prefer to ignore such realities in their quest to prove their a priori assumptions.

When dealing with prophecy, of course, we are always dealing with a two edged sword.  Prophecies are generally committed to paper years after the events have come true, they often have cryptic symbolism and when based on only one reporter’s account it is easy enough to discount.  In this case, while another version of the prophecy seems to have been previously published well before the war, that original publication, like many early American periodicals, has not survived.  The earliest extant publication is by an erstwhile Philadelphia journalist and dates to the eve of the Civil War, when many such prophecies about the onset of war were in the air.

Even so,  the account as published on the eve of war related to far more than just the onset of the Civil War.  For one thing, “the singularly beautiful being” also says to Washington, ‘Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh; look and learn.’ If this were just propaganda meant for the northern public on the eve of Civil War, why would it refer to future generations?

Moreover, the beatific being also interprets the visions he has seen thusly: ‘Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted. Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third, but in this greatest conflict the whole world united shall not prevail against her.’

While the first conflict she mentions is easily dismissed as the Civil War, the second and third are not. While one can put whatever spin on them one wants, it takes no Nostradamus to interpret the second and third “perils” as the two world wars, and the third conflict in particular as World War II, which was indeed the “greatest conflict” and where indeed for a time it seemed the Axis Powers would take over the “whole world.”  The professional debunkers of this prophecy conveniently leave out these parts of the prophecy, which clearly do not fit their smug theories and which, if they do not “prove” it, certainly give the prophecy much greater credibility to the modern reader.

As to who or what the “singularly beautiful being” may have been, several theories have been put forward.  Some say the apparition was an angel; others say it was the Virgin Mary, who has been known to appear and deliver prophecies in that manner; more recently, the show Ancient Aliens theorized that she was an Alien (of course). However, the 1859 version makes no such assertions, so the reader is left to add their own speculations to the others.

Of course, as with any prophecy, one is free to believe or disbelieve, or to interpret it as one wishes.  However, prophecies, it should be remembered, are not inevitable–they are warnings.  While one can always ignore a warning, it is generally not wise to do so.

For more uncanny tales of the Dixie and the Civil War, go to: Dixie Spirits and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. The “Angel of Liberty” painting is by artist Jon McNaughton and was also inspired by the Washington Prophecy.  I claim no copyright for it and you can obtain prints of it directly from the artist: Jon McNaughton Fine Art .

Thomas Jefferson and the UFO

Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence and early ufologist.

Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence and early ufologist.

While I normally write on paranormal topics rather than on UFO’s, where they involve a Dixie mystery, I sometimes make a detour to investigate various unexplained aerial phenomena.  For example, in Strange Tales I researched the time one or more UFO’s buzzed the Tennessee Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century (multiple reports of that) and also rare Fortean falls of blood and gore in Tennessee and Kentucky.  In Dixie Spirits I reported on a close encounter in West Virginia that Joe Nichol and his professional cynics have tried to explain away with a unique combination of arrogance and ignorance.  Moreover, down in Pascagoula, Mississippi, I have written about the “singing river” mystery, of which I reported only a fraction of the weirdness known from that area; while I didn’t bring in any theories about alien beings being responsible, others have, citing numerous UFO, USO and close encounters in the area; what the truth behind all that phenomena around Pascagoula may be is still unresolved, but definitely something is, or has been, going on there that defies ordinary scientific explanation.

While there is a certain overlap between paranormal phenomena, cryptozoology and UFO’s, as a rule these are discrete and separate fields of inquiry.  For one thing, most scientists do not take paranormal or supernatural accounts seriously and tend to dismiss them all, either as hoaxes or “delusions of the masses” when they can’t rationalize them away; whereas most scientists take the possibility of extraterrestrial life quite seriously, even if they might not accept the evidence of UFO investigators.  The SETI program is quite well funded and other scientific programs have also been searching the skies for proof of life elsewhere in the universe—even on mars.

So when I learned of Thomas Jefferson’s own interest in unsolved celestial phenomena, it piqued my interest. Jefferson was very much a man of the enlightenment and he kept an open mind to many mysteries that lacked easy answers.  He was one of the first, for example, to recognize that mammoths and mastodons roamed America and it is not generally appreciated that one of the goals of the Lewis and Clarke expedition was to go “looking for the elephant” and see if any still lived in the unexplored western territories at that time.

So we should not be surprised when, in 1800, Jefferson learned of a strange aerial sighting, he was moved to publish a report of it in a scholarly journal.  We are beholden to Thomas J. for an accurate account of one sighting in Louisiana.  Jefferson’s original correspondent was a gentleman planter named William Dunbar, a Scotsman by birth and a naturalist, astronomer, ethnologist and explorer living in Natchez, Mississippi at the time.  In searching the Jefferson Papers, it turns out that one part of Dunbar’s missive to Jefferson survived, on Indian sign language, but not apparently his separate enclosure on the UFO, so we just have Jefferson’s summary of it.  Like Jefferson, however, I will attempt to give an objective account of the sighting without too much speculation.

On night of April 5, 1800, an object was seen pass over Baton Rouge.  It came from the southwest, flying low overhead and moved at an extremely high rate of speed, disappearing out of sight within a quarter of a minute.  Eyewitnesses described it as being “as big as a house” and 70-80 feet long and being only some 200 feet above their heads when it passed.

It was described as being “wholly luminous but not emitting sparks” and Jefferson gives a vivid description of its luminosity: “of a colour resembling the sun near the horizon in a cold frosty evening, which may be called a crimson red.”  When it passed overhead a considerable degree of heat was felt “but no electrical sensation,” by which I take Jefferson to mean that it was not ball lightening or similar phenomena.  Immediately after it passed to the northeast a violent rushing noise was heard, indicating it was passing faster than the speed of sound; apparently the force of its passage bent trees before it and a few seconds later a loud crash was heard, “similar to that of the largest piece of ordinance” and a shock, like an earthquake, was felt as well.

Observers rushed to where the object landed and while the area plant life was burnt to a crisp and the ground much torn up, apparently there was no object found and Jefferson’s description does not indicate an impact crater either.  What was it?  Well, the simple answer would be a meteor of some sort.  But if so, why was no debris from it found.  Curious onlookers swarmed the area apparently, but no follow up report of finding a meteorite or fragments thereof were found.  It was obviously very large and low flying, so one would expect a considerable zone of destruction if it had exploded above the ground, along the lines of the Tunguska explosion in 1909.  Yet apparently that was not the case, since the nearby witnesses lived to tell the tale.  Another curious fact emerges from Jefferson’s report; it sounds as if it were flying almost parallel to the ground; surely most meteors or other space debris would be falling at an acute angle, if not a near vertical angle.

I myself have seen a bright object come down a few years back.  To the best of my knowledge no one else saw or reported it and it made no sound; like Jefferson’s UFO it disappeared within a few seconds.  But it descended at a forty-five degree angle and while luminous it was not close to the ground.  It may have been a small, bright meteorite, for if it been the size of Jefferson’s object it would have been noticed when it impacted.  Of course, we cannot be certain that Jefferson’s object did indeed crash; it may have exploded mid-air and disintegrated into nothingness.  Then too, it may have pulled up at the last moment and climbed up out of its gradual but supersonic descent; but if the latter, it would have to have been a manned craft and not simply some inert rock or fragment of a comet.  This may have been the first such sighting, but apparently it was not the last.  Checking recent accounts, there are evidently quite a few sightings of strange lights and aerial phenomena in the Baton Rouge area, pretty much ongoing, some of which have been recorded by camera or cellphone.

In an article on the University of Chicago website, Penelope, the blogger makes a similar point to mine, only does some interesting calculations:

Distance from impact: 6 km
Projectile diameter: 75 feet
Projectile density:

porous stone: 1500 kg/m3
maybe a bit more if some kind of craft, i.e., a semi-hollow metal object

Impact velocity: 0.6 km/s
Impact angle: 1.9°
Target type: Sedimentary rock

The U. of C. blogger notes that:  “if it was a house-sized object coming in at a meteoric speed, it would have been a huge event, with no survivors for miles, flattened trees, etc.”  They point out that the object which created Arizona’s Meteor Crater would have been about 50 meters in size, or only about twice the size of the object reported by Dunbar.  So, where’s the beef, as it were?

In the end, Jefferson’s report of a UFO leaves more questions than answers.  What was it?  Did it somehow recover from its rapid descent and peel off, leaving only burnt vegetation and blasted ground behind?  Well, the honest answer is we simply don’t know and unless more information surfaces, we must continue to categorize it as an unidentified flying object.

 

William Dunbar was also an early ufologist.

William Dunbar, naturalist, astronomer and explorer, was descended from titled nobility, but settled in Natchez and corresponded with Jefferson and other leading intellectuals of his day.

Sources:

Thomas Jefferson, Transactions, American Philosophical Society, vol. 6 Part 1 (Philadelphia, 1804), p. 25.  Jefferson mentions an illustration, but none of the sources I consulted had it.

The Penelope website at the University of Chicago: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/TAPS/6/Baton_Rouge_Phenomenon*.html

National Archives, Founders online: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0037

For more unexplained phenomena, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits.

Abraham Lincoln and Ancient Aliens

President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena

President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena

I normally don’t write about UFO’s and Alien sightings, restricting my researches to paranormal phenomena, but I have delved into the subject on occasion as it relates to the South. In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, for example, I investigated the UFO sightings over the Tennessee Valley in the early 1900’s and a “dark day” in Memphis, while in Dixie Spirits I also chronicled a very credible close encounter in West Virginia. Then there are those strange events which may not be supernatural but which certainly defy all attempts at rational explanation, such as rains of blood and gore, aerial showers of snakes and other land going animals, as well as the Mothman enigma, which itself seems to transcend traditional categories. So while I have an abiding interest in UFO’s and the possibility of Aliens visiting our planet, I generally have left those investigations to those with the resources to properly probe them.

via turbosquid

Artist’s conception of a mothership. Did one such ship hover over Memphis, Tennessee in 1904? See Chapter 37 of Strange Tales of the Dark & Bloody Ground.

That is why, when I was contacted by the folks at the Ancient Aliens series on The History Channel to come on their show and discuss my researches on Abraham Lincoln and the paranormal as published in The Paranormal Presidency, I was a bit bewildered how I might fit into their show’s format. Nevertheless, last summer I did an interview with the folks at Ancient Aliens and discussed quite a bit about Lincoln’s beliefs in the paranormal and allied subjects, as well as also discussing Ambrose Bierce, whose Civil War career I have researched extensively, the results of which should be published later this year or early next. Bierce, although known as a cynic, in fact was fascinated by the bizarre, the unexplained and the unusual—in other words, a man after my own heart. As honored as I was to be on their show, however, I wondered how my own expertise would fit into their show’s concept. Well, the wait is over; earlier this month the History Channel aired an episode entitled “Aliens and the Civil War.”

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War.  Was his war wound a source of his interests in the bizarre and unexplained?  The Ancient Aliens show thinks so.

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War. Was his war wound a source of his interests in the bizarre and unexplained? The Ancient Aliens show thinks so.

First off, I must say they did an excellent job of dovetailing what I had to say about Lincoln with other material relating to Alien contact and the Civil War. As is usual for this show, much of what they have to say is highly speculative; nevertheless, I thought much of what they argued was interesting, making connections between events and phenomena which I had not previously thought related to one another. Besides the Lincoln segment that I was on, they also discussed some other unusual phenomena which I have previously written about in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, although my take on the incidents was different. There was, for example, the vision of Washington at Valley Forge and his later appearance at the Battle of Gettysburg, which I discussed in the Chapter “Behold a Pale Rider”—although their account of Washington’s visitation at Gettysburg differs from my research.

While attending one seance Lincoln was given a "ride" on a piano by, a "physical" medium.

While attending one seance Lincoln was given a “ride” on a piano by, a “physical” medium.

The part of The Paranormal Presidency which they chose to excerpt from my longer interview revolved about Lincoln’s involvement with Spiritualism, in particular with a young psychic named Nettie Colburn—better known under her married name, Nettie Colburn Maynard. Although mainstream historians frequently label Nettie as a “charlatan,” my researches in the archives and other primary sources proved otherwise; likewise, some of the claims of other spiritualists about Lincoln’s involvement have been verified, at least in part. How deeply Lincoln was involved in the movement, however, remains subject to debate, but there is no question that he did attend séances and visit psychics, with and without his wife. That the “spirits” that contacted Lincoln’s psychics and advised the President could possibly be Alien life forms is something I had never thought of, but Ancient Aliens makes a case for these and other psychic encounters being due to the remote telepathic actions of extraterrestrials. Likewise, their tying Ambrose Bierce’s traumatic head would into a possible cause of his being psychically informed by Aliens may seem a stretch, but not totally dissimilar to Lincoln’s own near death experience being the possible cause of his own belief in premonitions and similar paranormal experiences.

Were Aliens in contact with Lincoln through the medium Nettie Colburn? (artist' s conception of an alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy).

Were Aliens in contact with Lincoln through the medium Nettie Colburn? (artist’ s conception of an alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy).

Bear in mind, the Ancient Aliens theories remain highly speculative, but some of the ideas they put forth in the episode “Aliens and the Civil War” are highly original and in some cases I think worthy of further investigation. Traditionally, UFO’s and the belief in Ghosts and the paranormal have been regarded as mutually exclusive. For one thing, most scientists accept the premise that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe; most of them have yet to accept the premise that earth has been visited by them.

In contrast, scientists as a group reject the supernatural or anything that resembles it and most reject any aspect of the paranormal as “delusions of the masses.” However, as theoretical physicists delve deeper into such things as Quantum Mechanics, and posit parallel worlds, alternate realities and similar seemingly incredible scientific theories, some scientists are no longer smugly scoffing at different types of paranormal phenomena, such as remote sensing, precognition, telekinesis and other things hitherto rejected as impossible. The possibility is growing that psychic communication at a distance, or foretelling the future may eventually be found to have a basis in reality, no matter how fantastic they may seem today.

All this reminds me of something that William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, once said about Lincoln’s unorthodox beliefs. He said that Lincoln did not so much believe in the supernatural as in the supra-natural; that what we may regard as defying the laws of nature may just be a part of the natural world which we cannot yet comprehend. Have aliens been in contact with us, by psychic or other means? Who is to say; what today may seem fantastic, may yet prove true.

“Aliens and the Civil War” aired on April 10, 2015 but you can see it on the Ancient Aliens Website: http://www.history.com/shows/ancient-aliens/videos/aliens-and-the-civil-war

My latest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is due for release by The University of Tennessee Press later this year or early next.  Look for it at better bookstores everywhere.

UNDEAD 101: THE REALITY VS THE FICTION

While I write mostly non-fiction accounts of the supernatural, I am as fond as the next person of a good ghost or horror story, not to mention credible science fiction and well executed fantasy (the latter category, I’m afraid, is rarely well executed though).  However, as I am well versed in true accounts of the paranormal—or at least what I believe to be true—I do get miffed at the widening gap between fictional accounts of the supernatural and the original sources of this fiction.  Fiction writers are certainly entitled to use literary license in crafting their tales to entertain us and after awhile, I understand it gets difficult to come up with something new and original in the horror genre; but I also think tales of the supernatural should have some relationship to reality, however remote.

So today, boys and girls of all ages (as they used to say), we are going to provide a bit of a reality check—or surreality check—and correct some misconceptions which have arise about the undead, or at least in folk beliefs about them, versus the ever growing pop myths that seem to have snowballed out of control in recent years.  I don’t expect to change any minds in Hollywood, much less in the ComiCon universe, but I least I can provide a bit of fresh air here and there to the stale stereotypes that have become dogma in pop horror.

First off, as a disclaimer, let me say that I do not go around abandoned buildings with a flashlight and camera aimed at my face trying to spook myself out; I do not claim to be psychic, although I have once or twice in my life had uncanny experiences which might qualify—as most people have—nor have I personally ever seen a fully embodied ghost.  However, I have met many people, from all walks of life, whom I believe have genuinely experienced some kind of paranormal event which they feel were real.  I do not have much truck with professional psychics, but I have on rare occasions met or known people who may well have latent psychic abilities.  While there are a lot of fakers around, and even more self-delusional believers, unlike the professional debunkers, I am willing to genuinely keep an open mind about the many phenomena which science is unable to adequately explain.

The association of sex with vampires is nothing new and goes  back at least to the Victorian era.

The association of sex with vampires is nothing new and goes back at least to the Victorian era.

So it is with accounts of the undead, a generic term for the belief that dead bodies may sometimes, somehow, reanimate.  There are accounts I have come across which are credible enough for me to be willing to consider the possibility, even if hard evidence may be lacking, or if most of it is more folklore than fact.  Can such things be?  I don’t know for certain; of all paranormal phenomena it is the most elusive and even credible cases are few and far between.  Yet western society, not to mention other world cultures, has a deeply engrained believed that such a thing is possible.  One only to look to the New Testament and the story of Lazarus, as an example that the claim of bringing the dead back to life has been made.  If you believe in the Bible, then you cannot reject the notion out of hand.  Outside of Christianity, of course, there were people who were called necromancers—a type of sorcerer who specifically claimed to be able to reanimate dead corpses—although not necessarily with the soul still in it.  So this whole thing is not a recent invention of some Hollywood hack; it has a background, a tradition, even if the hack writers have much abused it lately.

Modern pop horror is silly with stories of both zombies and vampires, both of which have a solid grounding in western beliefs, and it is these two types of undead which we are focusing on presently and which I propose to vent my peeves upon.

Bela Lugosi was for many years the stereotypical vampire; today's bloodsuckers are younger and sexier.

Bela Lugosi was for many years the stereotypical vampire; today’s bloodsuckers are younger and sexier.

 

First off, let us deal with the notion that vampires can be good or romantic, or somehow friendly or misunderstood.  There are whole rows of paperbacks in bookstores dedicated to vampire romances these days, even broken down into equally popular sub-genres, such as teenage vampire romances.  If there are such things as vampires that roam the night, let us understand what they really are: they are dead bodies, lifeless corpses, which have been reanimated by a demonic spirit.  Nothing more, nothing less: so any notion that they are somehow misunderstood or lost, or in need of your company, is utter nonsense.

The belief that a malevolent spirit can somehow occupy a dead corpse originated in Eastern Europe in the Dark Ages and goes back to the split between the Eastern Church and the Western one.  In Christianity one of the seven sacraments is Extreme Unction or Last Rights and while it can be administered to almost anyone who feels in need of spiritual healing, it has traditionally been administered to the dying.  The trouble came in when they tried to determine how late one could administer the sacrament to a dying person; in other words, when does the soul leave the body?  In the Western Church, they used the rule of up to one hour after clinical death; however, the Eastern Orthodox Churches were quite a bit more generous as to how long the soul might reside in the dead body and allowed up to thirty days to administer the sacrament.

But in those thirty days, especially in a colder climate, the dead flesh may still be viable and without visible signs of decay.  What if the soul leaves the corpse; don’t you then have an empty vessel, suitable to be occupied by something else?  Enter the vampire: an empty vessel reoccupied, not by the soul of the deceased, but by a demonic entity which has the power to reanimate the corpse and imitate the living.  It is in the nature of demons to roam the earth seeking the ruin of souls; what better way to do so than to take the shape of a deceased and pass among human society with its true nature undetected?  The business about sucking blood was a later addition: it is the life force which a demon seeks to drain and blood, itself a mysterious substance, is but the symbol of that life force.   Novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote about “emotional vampires:” these are flesh and blood humans, not dead corpses, who gain strength and vitality by draining others of their emotional sense of well being.  Doubtless we have all encountered an “emotional vampire” at one time or another and just not realized it: a co-worker or a relative who seems to leave all those around them drained of energy or strength.  This is not supernatural, but I’m afraid is all too common.

A genuine vampire hunting kit from the 1840's.

A genuine vampire hunting kit from the 1840’s.

 

Many years ago I read an account by the famed archaeologist A. J. B. Wace, the noted excavator of the city of Mycenae, famous from Homeric legend.  He was engaged on a survey once in a less explored part of Greece, seeking out Late Bronze Age tombs.  Most of the tombs had long ago been robbed of their contents, nut he came across one where the skeleton was still intact, with a bronze arrowhead still lodged in the chest where the heart would have been.  With nothing else of value left in the tomb, Professor Wace took the arrowhead and also removed the skull from the skeleton for anthropological analysis.  He thought nothing of the days work, until that night, and on succeeding nights, his camp was disturbed by an invisible intruder, apparently intent on vandalizing the camp.  Professor Wace and his British team could make no sense of it as they had found nothing of value worth stealing; but the local Greeks workers claimed to know what was afoot: the excavators had taken the skull of a vrykolakas—the Greek version of the vampire.

People who have led a sinful life, who have been excommunicated or been buried in unconsacrated ground; all these are potential causes for a corpse to reanimate and become a vrykolakas.  The activities of the vrykolakas are almost always harmful, although they may seem tame compared to the Hollywood version: it varies from merely leaving their grave and “roaming about” at night, to engaging in poltergeist-like activity, up to causing epidemics in the community.  One local villager even claimed to have seen a headless skelton walking along the dirt track that led from the tholos tomb where had Wace gotten the skull and arrow towards their camp.  The disturbances in camp nightly became more violent and were threatening to disrupt the expedition; so even though the British team had seen nothing themselves, they discretely put the skull back in the tomb and replaced the arrowhead in the ribcage of the skeleton.  Once done, the disturbances ceased as suddenly as they had begun and for years afterwards the Greek villagers referred to the incident as “St. George the Vampire.”

In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I relate the case of the discovery of a corpse in East Tennessee where the body was almost perfectly preserved but had a wooden stake through its heart—the traditional method of disposing of a vampire.  I was at a loss to explain it, since vampires are traditionally an Eastern European or Near Eastern phenomenon and Anne Rice’s novels notwithstanding, not generally present in the South.  However, after the book was published, I came across a reporter for a Tennessee newspaper whose family were of Armenian extraction and sheinformed me that in the earlier part of the twentieth century—about the time of the discovery of the “Vampire of Bradley County”—that there were indeed Armenian folk in that part of the South.  In Armenia they tell of the Dakhanvar who dwells in the mountains and sucks the blood from the soles of peoples feet.  So perhaps the mountains of East Tennessee have their own Dakhanvar.  Who knows?

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead started the cannibal zombie craze.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead started the cannibal zombie craze.

Insofar as that other popular undead monster goes, the zombie, the evidence, of sorts, is actually much better—although, here again, not what Hollywood would have you believe.  I credit George Romero with his black and white B movie horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, for having introduced the business of zombies becoming cannibals.  I grant you it was a stroke of genius and upped the horror level of zombies immensely: but really people, can’t you think of something original here?  Everyone since Romero has basically been ripping his idea off.  I will confess that I and most of my family do following the Walking Dead series on TV, which is exceptionally well rendered; but in general, the cannibal zombie plague trope is way, way overdone and I sincerely hope Hollywood will give this one a rest very soon.

That being said, there is in fact some basis to the traditional Voodoo belief in zombies.  It has long been believed that Voodoo practitioners can curse people to death and that if they are really in need of household help, will dig up the corpse and, via their magical powers, reanimate the corpse.  Several years back, an anthropologist studying Voodoo in Haiti uncovered persons who were believed to be zombies.  The real zombie, I should add, is not cannibal, or anything like it; it serves a master’s bidding, mostly doing hard manual labor.  In theory, unlike the vampire, a zombie is an empty vessel: it has no soul but it also has no demonic spirit inside.  It is just a mindless automaton, a piece of dead flesh made to do drudge work.  The anthropologist, however, did not find any walking dead; rather, he found persons who had been slipped a mickey by the local witch-doctor, gone into a death like trance, even been buried, then dug up and kept under the influence of the drugs and been virtually turned into slave labor.  Are there such things as genuine zombies out there somewhere?  I don’t know; but I certainly hope not.

Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space mixed zombies with aliens.  A movie so bad it was good (for a laugh at least).

Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space mixed zombies with aliens. A movie so bad it was good (for a laugh at least).

For more true accounts of the uncanny, the unexplained and the just plain weird, read Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and, of course, Dixie Spirits.

Elvis Encounters in Nashville

The King of Rock and Roll haunts more than Graceland; even his daughter has had encounters with him in Nashville!

The King of Rock and Roll haunts more than Graceland; even his daughter has had encounters with him in Nashville!

Readers of my books Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee may assume that I had written quite enough about the King in both books; but they would be wrong!  No matter where you go, it seems that the restless rockin’ ghost of Elvis is likely to make his presence known to us.

In Strange Tales I mostly focused on Elvis sightings in West Tennessee, particularly at Graceland.  Of course, many who have seen him at his favorite haunt have refused to believe him dead—hence the widespread Elvis Lives! urban folklore.  In my chapter on the King in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I focused on his haunting other cities as well, including Las Vegas (VIVA!) and Nashville.  Although Elvis is not generally associated with Nashville, in truth Music City had quite a bit to do with his rise to fame.  This was where Heartbreak Hotel was recorded and quite a number of his other hits.  When he came to town, strangely, he did not lodge in some glitzy glamorous hotel (the city had them even then); no, he would stay in a simple cinder-block guest house out behind his manager’s house, Colonel Parker.  The Colonel’s house still stands, although it has been turned into law offices and its front yard into a parking lot; likewise the little cinder-block special stands, although much improved and the metal bars taken off the windows.  They side on the right side of Gallatin Road in Madison, 1215 Gallatin Road South.  Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPKS6D_OlDE for a rare look inside Colonel Tom Parker’s old digs.

The studio in Nashville where Elvis first recorded some of his greatest hits, however, is sadly not standing anymore.  It was on a side street off Demumbreun Street, in the Music Row District of Music City.  This first RCA Studio was admittedly not fancy looking: in those days, the record companies wanted things cheap, so no fancy glitz and glamour.  While it is now the site of a used car lot, for many years it had quite the reputation for being haunted.  Jim Owens TV used it as studios for a number of years and just about every person who worked there had some kind of uncanny encounter.  No one who worked there doubted the King was making his presence known.

One spot where Elvis performed is also thought to be haunted by him: none other than the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole’ Opry.   You may not have ever heard he played there because he only did it once, and the memory of it was not a pleasant one for him.  Somehow old Swivel Hips got booked onto the Saturday Night Show of the Opry back in the early ‘50’s.  Well, you have to understand that in those days the Opry was pretty straight-laced: no drums, no saxophones, etc.  So you can imagine when the singer whose hips were blacked out when he performed on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show got up on stage.  He was literally booed off the stage by the audience of Country purists.  As he was walking offstage, a know-it-all Nashville music producer gave him some sage advice.  He said, “Son, get out of the business, you’re never gonna make in music.”  Needless to say, Elvis didn’t listen to him and the rest is history; but Elvis never performed live in Nashville again.

The Ryman Auditorium, where Lisa Marie had encounter with the ghost of her dad.

The Ryman Auditorium, where Lisa Marie had encounter with the ghost of her dad

A few years back his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley was doing a show at the old Ryman.  She was headed back to her dressing room and about to go in and take off her makeup and such, but the door would not budge.  Even her burly bodyguard could not open it.  Finally, she and her guard heard the distinct sound of her father’s laugh ring out and suddenly the door opened with ease.  Big Daddy had made his presence known to Lisa Marie!

Or course, Las Vegas had a longtime relationship with the King of Rock and Roll also, especially during his jumpsuit years.  Elvis’s Penthouse Suite in Vegas (now broken up into three smaller luxury suites is also reputed to be haunted by the King:  Here’s another rare look:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZSH59uWKUM .  His immense penthouse atop the Vegas Hilton is known to have a particularly strong aura of Elvi about it—but that’s another story.

King of Country and King of Rock n Roll (via Nashville Elis Fan Club)

King of Country and King of Rock n Roll (via Nashville Elis Fan Club)

For these and other true tales of the uncanny, go view Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.  Thank you very much, thank you very much.

Fishead: a Classic Horror Tale of Reelfoot Lake

 

Reelfoot Lake.  When the sun goes down, the spirits come out.

Reelfoot Lake. When the sun goes down, the spirits come out.

Normally, I don’t repost other’s works, or publish horror fiction for that matter, no matter how well done, but I recently came across this classic short story about Reelfoot Lake, a place whose supernatural repute I have chronicled in both Dixie Spirits and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.  It was first published in 1913 and so in some respects it reflects the racial attitudes of the era which by modern standards would certainly be unacceptable.  However I did not bowdlerize the text in any way; Cobb’s tale is what it is, warts and all.  Nonetheless, the main character gets his revenge, albeit in a strange way.  I think it is an overlooked classic deserving of a wider audience.

Irvin S. Cobb was a prolific writer, best known for his humorous columns in the New York World; he also published sixty books and numerous short stories.  Although Kentucky born, he lived most of his adult life in New York, but Cobb he never forgot his Southern roots.  This story, penned in 1911, is said to have inspired a classic H. P. Lovecraft tale.

Fishhead

Irvin S. Cobb

Originally published in The Cavalier (1913)

IT GOES past the powers of my pen to try to describe Reelfoot Lake for you so that you, reading this, will get the picture of it in your mind as I have it in mine.

For Reelfoot Lake is like no other lake that I know anything about. It is an after-thought of Creation.

The rest of this continent was made and had dried in the sun for thousands of years-millions of years, for all I know-before Reelfoot came to be. It’s the newest big thing in nature on this hemisphere, probably, for it was formed by the great earthquake of 1811.

That earthquake of 1811 surely altered the face of the earth on the then far frontier of this country.

It changed the course of rivers, it converted hills into what are now the sunk lands of three states, and it turned the solid ground to jelly and made it roll in waves like the sea.

And in the midst of the retching of the land and the vomiting of the waters it depressed to varying depths a section of the earth crust sixty miles long, taking it down — trees, hills, hollows, and all, and a crack broke through to the Mississippi River so that for three days the river ran up stream, filling the hole.

The result was the largest lake south of the Ohio, lying mostly in Tennessee, but extending up across what is now the Kentucky line, and taking its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splay, reeled foot of a cornfield negro. Niggerwool Swamp, not so far away, may have got its name from the same man who christened Reelfoot: at least so it sounds.

Reelfoot is, and has always been, a lake of mystery.

In places it is bottomless. Other places the skeletons of the cypress-trees that went down when the earth sank, still stand upright so that if the sun shines from the right quarter, and the water is less muddy than common, a man, peering face downward into its depths, sees, or thinks he sees, down below him the bare top-limbs upstretching like drowned men’s fingers, all coated with the mud of years and bandaged with pennons of the green lake slime.

In still other places the lake is shallow for long stretches, no deeper than breast high to a man, but dangerous because of the weed growths and the sunken drifts which entangle a swimmer’s limbs. Its banks are mainly mud, its waters are *muddled, too, being a rich coffee color in the spring and a copperish yellow in the summer, and the trees along its shore are mud colored clear up their lower limbs after the spring floods, when the dried sediment covers their trunks with a thick, scrofulous-looking coat.

There are stretches of unbroken woodland around it, and slashes where the cypress knees rise countlessly like headstones and footstones for the dead snags that rot in the soft ooze.

There are deadenings with the lowland corn growing high and rank below and the bleached, fire-blackened girdled trees rising above, barren of leaf and limb.

There are long, dismal flats where in the spring the clotted frog- spawn cling like patches of white mucus among the weed-stalks, and at night the turtles crawl out to lay clutches of perfectly, round, white eggs with tough, rubbery shells in the sand.

There are bayous leading off to nowhere, and sloughs that wind aimlessly, like great, blind worms, to finally join the big river that rolls its semi-liquid torrents a few miles to the westward.

So Reelfoot lies there, flat in the bottoms, freezing lightly in the winter, steaming torridly in the summer, swollen in the spring when the woods have turned a vivid green and the buffalo-gnats by the million and the billion fill the flooded hollows with their pestilential buzzing, and in the fall, ringed about gloriously with all the colors which the first frost brings-gold of hickory, yellow-russet of sycamore, red of dogwood and ash, and purple-black of sweet-gum.

But the Reelfoot country has its uses. It is the best game and fish country, natural or artificial, that is left in the South today.

In their appointed seasons the duck and the geese flock in, and even semi-tropical birds, like the brown pelican and the Florida snake-bird, have been known to come there to nest.

Pigs, gone back to wildness, range the ridges, each razor-backed drove captained by a gaunt, savage, slab-sided old boar. By night the bullfrogs, inconceivably big and tremendously vocal, bellow under the banks.

It is a wonderful place for fish — bass and crappie, and perch, and the snouted buffalo fish.

How these edible sorts live to spawn, and how their spawn in turn live to spawn again is a marvel, seeing how many of the big fish-eating cannibal-fish there are in Reelfoot.

Here, bigger than anywhere else, you find the garfish, all bones and appetite and horny plates, with a snout like an alligator, the nearest link, naturalists say, between the animal life of today and the animal life of the Reptilian Period.

The shovel-nose cat, really a deformed kind of fresh-water sturgeon, with a great fan-shaped membranous plate jutting out from his nose like a bowsprit, jumps all day in the quiet places with mighty splashing sounds, as though a horse had fallen into the water.

On every stranded log the huge snapping turtles lie on sunny days in groups of four and six, baking their shells black in the sun, with their little snaky heads raised watchfully, ready to slip noiselessly off at the first sound of oars grating in the row-locks. But the biggest of them all are the catfish!

These are monstrous creatures, these catfish of Reelfoot — scaleless,slick things, with corpsy, dead eyes and poisonous fins, like javelins, and huge whiskers dangling from the sides of their cavernous heads.

Six and seven feet long they grow to be, and weigh 200 pounds or more, and they have mouths wide enough to take in a man’s foot or a man’s fist, and strong enough to break any hook save the strongest, and greedy enough to eat anything, living or dead or putrid, that the horny jaws can master.

Oh, but they are wicked things, and they tell wicked tales of them down there. They call them man-eaters, and compare them, in certain of their habits, to sharks.

Fishhead was of a piece with this setting.

He fitted into it as an acorn fits its cup. All his life he had lived on Reelfoot, always in the one place, at the mouth of a certain slough.

He had been born there, of a negro father and a half-breed Indian mother, both of them now dead, and the story was that before his birth his mother was frightened by one of the big fish, so that the child came into the world most hideously marked.

Anyhow, Fishhead was a human monstrosity, the veritable embodiment of nightmare!

He had the body of a man — a short, stocky sinewy body — but his face was as near to being the face of a great fish as any face could be and yet retain some trace of human aspect.

His skull sloped back so abruptly that he could hardly be said to have a have a forehead at all; his chin slanted off right into nothing. His eyes were small and round with shallow, glazed, pale-yellow pupils, and they were set wide apart in his head, and they were unwinking and staring, like a fish’s eyes.

His nose was no more than a pair of tiny slits in the middle of the yellow mask. His mouth was the worst of all. It was the awful mouth of a catfish, lipless and almost inconceivably wide, stretching from side to side.

Also when Fishhead became a man grown his likeness to a fish increased, for the hair upon his face grew out into two tightly kinked slender pendants that drooped down either side of the mouth like the beards of a fish!

If he had another name than Fishhead, none excepting he knew it. As Fishhead he was known, and as Fishhead he answered. Because he knew the waters and the woods of Reelfoot better than any other man there, he was valued as a guide by the city men who came every year to hunt or fish; but there were few such jobs that Fishhead would take.

Mainly he kept to himself, tending his corn patch, netting the lake, trapping a little, and in season pot hunting for the city markets. His neighbors, ague-bitten whites and malaria-proof negroes alike, left him to himself

Indeed, for the most part they had a superstitious fear of him. So he lived alone, with no kith nor kin, nor even a friend, shunning his kind and shunned by them.

His cabin stood just below the State line, where Mud Slough runs into the lake. It was a shack of logs, the only human habitation for four miles up or down.

Behind it the thick timber came shouldering right up to the edge of Fishhead’s small truck patch, enclosing it in thick shade except when the sun stood just overhead.

He cooked his food in a primitive fashion, outdoors, over a hole in the soggy earth or upon the rusted red ruin of an old cookstove, and he drank the saffron water of the lake out of a dipper made of a gourd, faring and fending for himself, a master hand at skiff and net, competent with duck gun and fishspear, yet a creature of affliction and loneliness, part savage, almost amphibious, set apart from his fellows, silent and suspicious.

In front of his cabin jutted out a long fallen cottonwood trunk, lying half in and half out of the water, its top side burnt by the sun and worn by the friction of Fishhead’s bare feet until it showed countless patterns of tiny scrolled lines, its underside black and rotted, and lapped at unceasingly by little waves like tiny licking tongues.

Its farther end reached deep water. And it was a part of Fishhead, for no matter how far his fishing and trapping might take him in the daytime, sunset would find him back there, his boat drawn up on the bank, and he on the other end of this log.

From a distance men had seen him there many times, sometimes squatted motionless as the big turtles that would crawl upon its dipping tip in his absence, sometimes erect and motionless like a creek crane, his misshapen yellow form outlined against the yellow sun, the yellow water, the yellow banks — all of them yellow together.

If the Reelfooters shunned Fishhead by day they feared him by night and avoided him as a plague, dreading even the chance of a casual meeting. For there were ugly stories about Fishhead — stories which all the negroes and some of the whites believed.

They said that a cry which had been heard just before dusk and just after, skittering across the darkened waters, was his calling cry to the big cats, and at his bidding they came trooping in, and that in their company he swam in the lake on moonlight nights, sporting with them, diving with them, even feeding with them on what manner of unclean things they fed.

The cry had been heard many times, that much was certain, and it was certain also that the big fish were noticeably thick at the mouth of Fishhead’s slough. No native Reelfooter, white or black, would willingly wet a leg or an arm there.

Here Fishhead had lived, and here he was going to die. The Baxters were going to kill him, and this day in late summer was to be the time of the killing.

The two Baxters — Jake and Joel — were coming in their dugout to do it!

This murder had been a long time in the making. The Baxters had to brew their hate over a slow fire for months before it reached the pitch of action.

They were poor whites, poor in everything, repute, and worldly goods, and standing — a pair of fever-ridden squatters who lived on whiskey and tobacco when they could get it, and on fish and cornbread when they couldn’t.

The feud itself was of months’ standing. Meeting Fishhead one day, in the spring on the spindly scaffolding of the skiff landing at Walnut Log, and being themselves far overtaken in liquor and vainglorious with a bogus alcoholic substitute for courage, the brothers had accused him, wantonly and without proof, of running their trout-line and stripping it of the hooked catch — an unforgivable sin among the water dwellers and the shanty boaters of the South.

Seeing that he bore this accusation in silence, only eyeing them steadfastly, they had been emboldened then to slap his face, whereupon he turned and gave them both the beating of their lives — bloodying their noses and bruising their lips with hard blows against their front teeth, and finally leaving them, mauled and prone, in the dirt.

Moreover, in the onlookers a sense of the everlasting fitness of things had triumphed over race prejudice and allowed them — two freeborn, sovereign whites — to be licked *by, a nigger! Therefore they were going to get the nigger!

The whole thing had been planned out amply. They were going to kill him on his log at sundown. There would be no witnesses to see it, no retribution to follow after it. The very ease of the undertaking made them forget even their inborn fear of the place of Fishhead’s habitation.

For more than an hour they had been coming from their shack across a deeply indented arm of the lake.

Their dugout, fashioned by fire and adz and draw-knife from the bole of a gum-tree, moved through the water as noiselessly as a swimming mallard, leaving behind it a long, wavy trail on the stilled waters.

Jake, the better oarsman, sat flat in the stern of the round-bottomed craft, paddling with quick, splashless strokes, Joel, the better shot, was squatted forward. There was a heavy, rusted duck gun between his knees.

Though their spying upon the victim had made them certain sure he would not be about the shore for hours, a doubled sense of caution led them to hug closely the weedy banks. They slid along the shore like shadows, moving so swiftly and in such silence that the watchful mudturtles barely turned their snaky heads as they passed.

So, a full hour before the time, they came slipping around the mouth of the slough and made for a natural ambuscade which the mixed-breed had left within a stone’s jerk of his cabin to his own undoing.

Where the slough’s flow joined deeper water a partly uprooted tree was stretched, prone from shore, at the top still thick and green with leaves that drew nourishment from the earth in which the half uncovered roots yet held, and twined about with an exuberance of trumpet vines and wild fox-grapes. All about was a huddle of drift — last year’s cornstalks, shreddy strips of bark, chunks of rotted weed, all the riffle and dunnage of a quiet eddy.

Straight into this green clump glided the dugout and swung, broadside on, against the protecting trunk of the tree, hidden from the inner side by the intervening curtains of rank growth, just as the Baxters had intended it should be hidden when days before in their scouting they marked this masked place of waiting and included it, then and there, in the scope of their plans.

There had been no hitch or mishap. No one had been abroad in the late afternoon to mark their movements — and in a little while Fishhead ought to be due. Jake’s woodman’s eye followed the downward swing of the sun speculatively.

The shadows, thrown shoreward, lengthened and slithered on the small ripples. The small noises of the day died out; the small noises of the coming night began to multiply.

The green-bodied flies went away and big mosquitoes with speckled gray legs, came to take the places of the flies.

The sleepy lake sucked at the mud banks with small mouthing sounds, as though it found the taste of the raw mud agreeable. A monster crawfish, big as a chicken lobster, crawled out of the top of his dried mud chimney and perched himself there, an armored sentinel on the watchtower.

Bull bats began to flitter back and forth, above the tops of the trees. A pudgy muskrat, swimming with head up, was moved to sidle off briskly as he met a cotton-mouth moccasin snake, so fat and swollen with summer poison that it looked almost like a legless lizard as it moved along the surface of the water in a series of slow torpid S’s. Directly above the head of either of the waiting assassins a compact little swarm of midges hung, holding to a sort of kite-shaped formation.

A little more time passed and Fishhead came out of the woods at the back, walking swiftly, with a sack over his shoulder.

For a few seconds his deformities showed in the clearing, then the black inside of the cabin swallowed him up.

By now the sun was almost down. Only the red nub of it showed above the timber line across the lake, and the shadows lay inland a long way. Out beyond, the big cats were stirring, and the great smacking sounds as their twisting bodies leaped clear and fell back in the water, came shoreward in a chorus.

But the two brothers, in their green covert, gave heed to nothing except the one thing upon which their hearts were set and their nerves tensed. Joel gently shoved his gun barrels across the log, cuddling the stock to his shoulder and slipping two fingers caressingly back and forth upon the triggers. Jake held the narrow dugout steady by a grip upon a fox-grape tendril.

A little wait and then the finish came!

Fishhead emerged from the cabin door and came down the narrow footpath to the water and out upon the water on his log.

He was barefooted and bareheaded, his cotton shirt open down the front to show his yellow neck and breast, his dungaree trousers held about his waist by a twisted tow string.

His broad splay feet, with the prehensile toes outspread, gripped the polished curve of the log as he moved along its swaying, dipping surface until he came to its outer end, and stood there erect, his chest filling, his chinless face lifted up, and something of mastership and dominion in his poise.

And then — his eye caught what another’s eyes might have missed — the round, twin ends of the gun barrels, the fixed gleam of Joel’s eyes, aimed at him through the green tracery! In that swift passage of time, too swift almost to be measured by seconds, realization flashed all through him, and he threw his head still higher and opened wide his shapeless trap of a mouth, and out across the lake he sent skittering and rolling his cry.

And in his cry was the laugh of a loon, and the croaking bellow of a frog, and the bay of a hound, all the compounded night noises of the lake. And in it, too, was a farewell, and a defiance, and an appeal!

The heavy roar of the duck gun came!

At twenty yards the double charge tore the throat out of him. He came down, face forward, upon the log and clung there, his trunk twisting distortedly, his legs twitching and kicking like the legs of a speared frog; his shoulders hunching and lifting spasmodically as the life ran out of him all in one swift coursing flow.

His head canted up between the heaving shoulders, his eyes looked full on the staring face of his murderer, and then the blood came out of his mouth, and Fishhead, in death still as much fish as man, slid, flopping, head first, off the end of the log, and sank, face downward slowly, his limbs all extended out.

One after another a string of big bubbles came up to burst in the middle of a widening reddish stain on the coffee-colored water.

The brothers watched this, held by the horror of the thing they had done, and the cranky dugout, having been tipped far over by the recoil of the gun, took water steadily across its gunwale; and now there was a sudden stroke from below upon its careening bottom and it went over and they were in the lake.

But shore was only twenty feet away, the trunk of the uprooted tree only five. Joel, still holding fast to his shot gun, made for the log, gaining it with one stroke. He threw his free arm over it and clung there, treading water, as he shook his eyes free.

Something gripped him — some great, sinewy, unseen thing gripped him fast by the thigh, crushing down on his flesh!

He uttered no cry, but his eyes popped out, and his mouth set in a square shape of agony, and his fingers gripped into the bark of the tree like grapples. He was pulled down and down, by steady jerks, not rapidly but steadily, so steadily, and as he went his fingernails tore four little white strips in the tree-bark. His mouth went under, next his popping eyes, then his erect hair, and finally his clawing, clutching hand, and that was the end of him.

Jake’s fate was harder still, for he lived longer — long enough to see Joel’s finish. He saw it through the water that ran down his face, and with a great surge of his whole body, he literally flung himself across the log and jerked his legs up high into the air to save them. He flung himself too far, though, for his face and chest hit the water on the far side.

And out of this water rose the head of a great fish, with the lake slime of years on its flat, black head, its whiskers bristling, its corpsy eyes alight. Its horny jaws closed and clamped in the front of Jake’s flannel shirt. His hand struck out wildly and was speared on a poisoned fin, and, unlike Joel, he went from sight with a great yell, and a whirling and churning of the water that made the cornstalks circle on the edges of a small whirlpool.

But the whirlpool soon thinned away, into widening rings of ripples, and the corn stalks quit circling and became still again, and only the multiplying night noises sounded about the mouth of the slough.

The bodies of all three came ashore on the same day near the same place. Except for the gaping gunshot wound where the neck met the chest, Fishhead’s body was unmarked.

But the bodies of the two Baxters were so marred and mauled that the Reelfooters buried them together on the bank without ever knowing which might be Jake’s and which might be Joel’s.

Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, seamen, prostitutes and pawnbrokers.

St. Nicolas the Necromancer

 

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the real life origin of our Santa Klaus. Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.

While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield to relate the occult truth behind that most familiar seasonal icon—Santa Claus.

As we all know so well, the moniker Santa Klaus is really a nickname for the orthodox Christian saint, Saint Nicholas.  For those who may mistake him as a mere marketing ploy for Coca Cola Corp, we must emphasize that St. Nicholas was—is—a real person.  For our Protestant brethren (and sistern) for whom the system of saints may be a trifle strange or unfamiliar, one should bear in mind one salient fact about saints and St. Nicholas in particular: saints are generally referred to in the present tense.  So, although they may not be visible or with us in the flesh, they are always present in the spirit.  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

As we all know, St. Nicholas’ special domain is Yuletide and he is, among other things, the patron saint of children.  How St. Nicholas became the patron of children is where the supernatural weirdness enters the tale.

The story goes (and who am I to question Holy Mother Church in matters of faith).  That St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Lycia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey), had already a pretty strong reputation for piety and good works.  Like St. Valentine, he was known to give young unmarried girls money for their dowry, so they could get married instead of being sold to a brothel by their father (yes Virginia, times were tough back then).  To this day in some places, on his feast they still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to make them look like money.

St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.

St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.

 

One day, news came of a terrible crime.  Three young children had been murdered and their bodies were found pickled by a fiend named Garum, who bore a strange resemblance to Peter Lorrie in M.  Why the killer pickled them is a mite obscure, but the general theory is that he pickled them to prepare their flesh for being turned into meat pies (or the Roman equivalent)—à la Sweeney Todd.

Arriving on the scene of the crime, Old Saint Nick was anything but jolly at what he found.  The children were most thoroughly dead—some renditions of his life claim they had already been chopped into cutlets in preparation for cooking.  Then Saint Nicholas did something no one expected.  He reanimated the dead corpses of the three children and reunited them with their grieving parents.

St. Nick raising the boys back to life.  From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).

St. Nick raising the boys back to life. From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).

According to the version told by Anatole France, an angel appeared to Nick and bade him lay his hands on the pickle vat:

The angel said:

“Nicolas, son of God, lay your hands on the salting-tub, and the three children will be resuscitated.”

     The blessed Nicolas, filled with horror, pity, zeal, and hope, gave thanks to God, and when the innkeeper reappeared with a jug in either hand, the Saint said to him in a terrible voice:

“Garum, open the salting-tub!”

Whereupon, Garum, overcome by fear, dropped both his jugs and the saintly Bishop Nicolas stretched out his hands, and said:

“Children, arise!”

At these words, the lid of the salting-tub was lifted up, and three young boys emerged.

“Children,” said the Bishop, “give thanks to God, who through me, has raised you from out the salting-tub.”

The murderous innkeeper ran screaming into the dark and stormy night and has not been seen since.

Saint Nicholas also performed other feats of magic/miracles.  One time, while traveling at sea a terrible tempest arose and his sailing ship was in danger of sinking.  Again Old Nick stretched forth his hands over the waters and the sea was immediately calmed.  It is because of these aforementioned good works and miracles that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of children, but mariners, virgins and prostitutes.  This is why you will see icons of St. Nicholas with a boat in his arms and sometimes with gold balls.  The gold balls are a bit enigmatic, but either are analogs to the sack of coins he gives to virgins for their dowries or as rewards to his more shady female devotees for their devotion to him.  The gold balls may also relate to him being the patron saint of pawnbrokers, although how he took them under his wing is beyond me.

The notion that St. Nick is always a “jolly old elf” has been promoted mostly by the corporate types using him as a marketing ploy to commercialize a season which should be celebrating the advent of Jesus and the triumph of light over dark.  In fact, St. Nicholas had a bit of a temper if you got on his bad side.  During one church council, the bishops and other church officials were hotly debating the Arian Heresy, at the time being actively spread by a priest name Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ.  Well, the “debate” got so heated that “Jolly Old St. Nick” hauled off and punched Arius, knocking him down on the ground and out for the count.  I’m surprised that St. Nicholas isn’t also the patron saint of prize fighters.

Now a person who raises the dead from the grave for any purpose is by definition a necromancer and is necromancy is considered the blackest of the Black Arts.  That Jolly Old Saint Nicholas had the power (albeit God-given) to raise the dead speaks volumes about his spiritual (ie magical) abilities.  He may well be a merry old soul, but he is also not someone to get on the bad side of.

Krampus seems to take particular pleasure in abusing young women, to judge by the images of him.

Krampus is St. Nicholas’ “helper” who punishes bad girls and boys.

One hint that there is a darker side to Old Saint Nick is his “helper” the Krampus.  You never hear about Krampus in the U.S., but in Austria and Germany they know better.  The other night on Jimmy Fallon, Christophe Waltz gave American audiences a short education about Krampus. While the “elf on a shelf” is merely a snitch for Santa, Krampus is his enforcer—kind of like what happens if you don’t pay the Mafia loan-shark what you owe him.  The best way to describe Krampus is if Bigfoot had sex with the Devil and they had a child together, who took some really bad LSD, Krampus would be the result.  This creature is seriously demented.

If Saint Nicholas comes with “praise and presents and wisdom,”  Krampus comes with a stick and a bag and if you’re bad you get tossed in the bag and hit with a stick.  Actually, that is the least that Santa’s not so jolly helper will do to you.

More of Krampus' hair pulling of braided hair.  That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are  filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.

More of Krampus’ hair pulling of braided hair. That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.

He is fond of pulling pretty girl’s golden braids and doing God knows what else to them when no one is looking, and there are even some hints that Krampus has cannibal tendencies, like the aforementioned innkeeper.

Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.

Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.

Although it is not widely mentioned, St. Nicholas the Necromancer is held in great awe among practitioners of Voodoo, where he is identified with the African entity Gran Solé or in the Santeria Cult, Gran Soler.  In the Spanish speaking lands of the Caribbean, Gran Soler and San Nicolas del Sol are one and the same.  Which brings us to why St. Nicholas is connected to Christmas in the first place.  No one actually knows when Jesus was born, but the early Church fathers placed his birthday around the same time as the Winter Solstice–the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun.  All fall, the days grow shorter and shorter, and the sun is “dying.”  But with the Winter Solstice the dying ceases and the sun returns from the “dead.”   St. Nicholas the Necromancer is closely tied with this annual miracle of nature.

 

Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.

Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.

That Nicholas of the Sun can raise the dead at will connects him closely with the Voodoo cult of the zombie as well.  Imagine, if you will, that with St. Nicholas/Gran Solé’s help, at a wave of the hand you could summon an army of reanimated corpses back from the dead to do your will—what kind of power would you wield?  Fortunately, that has not come to pass—yet.

So, let us hope you did not trample too many people on Black Friday, or run over too many pedestrians in your haste for a parking space.  You better be good, you better be nice and better think twice–and forget about the sugar plums and spice–lest Krampus and St. Nicholas the Necromancer decide to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.

 

Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).

Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).

For more weirdness from the land of cotton, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits.