Grendel and Bigfoot: Big Hairy Beasts and Where to Find Them
While we normally chronicle all things weird and wonderful about the American South, we are not averse to occasional side trips into other realms of the uncanny. Given that there are abundant reports of Big Foot and his stinky-ass cousins all over the South, it is not too far afield to inquire about that most famous monster from Old English literature, Grendel.
Once upon a time there was an obscure English scholar of Medieval Literature who wrote an obscure paper about a long forgotten Old English epic poem. The poem was Beowulf and the eccentric academic in question was J.R.R. Tolkien. His resurrection of the epic poem started a major re-appreciation of the poem, first by scholars, then by literary critics in general and finally Hollywood, running out of comic books to make into movies and TV shows, grabbed onto Beowulf and ran with it. At last count, I believe there have been three movies made about Beowulf and more recently a TV series, all of which play fast and loose with the original story–but that’s Holly Weird for you. So, in case you have to read it for a class this fall, be warned that the Germanic hero does not have sex with a demonic Angelina Jolie morphed into a dragon, or anything like it. Read the book.
What set this latest inquiry into monsters is an article I came across by a Dark Age scholar chronicling all the (allegedly) legendary monsters who inhabited Medieval Lincolnshire. Bear in mind, on a dark and stormy night, jolly old England in the Dark Ages could be a pretty scary place and she lists quite a few wyrd and uncanny beasts. No doubt J. K. Rowling could raid her blog for more stuff for her sequels. The original blog post is here: “The Monstrous Landscape of Lincolnshire.”
She posted an old illustration of Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, in the post which immediately caught my eye. She connects Beowulf with a local monster or ogre called a byrs or thyrs in Anglo-Saxon. The illustration from a 1908 book (see below) which included the story of Grendel versus Beowulf is strikingly similar to what most eyewitnesses have described as Bigfoot. Now, admittedly, a modern artist’s conception is not proof that the ancient creature called a byrs and which was the term to describe Grendel was the same beast, but it does set one wondering.
Anyone familiar with either or all of my books, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground,Dixie Spirits or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee will know I have an abiding interest in Cryptozoology. It is my belief that, more often than not, these legends of strange or uncanny creatures do have a basis in fact. Animals though long extinct, such as the Coelacanth, manage to confound biologists all the time and fossil hunter are always uncovering previously unknown extinct species. So whenever a biologist vehemently denies the existence of one or another creature as legendary, they should always add the qualifier “for now.”
Over the years there have been quite a few Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) sightings in the Mid-South, although they do seem to have tapered off in recent years. I live in a suburban county to Nashville and while I can’t claim to have seen any giant ape-men (or man-apes, depending on your point of view) I have talked to a few who have. Modern Hendersonville, Tennessee is rapidly building up and developing, but one long time resident remembers the time he was walking along Drakes Creek, before the sports complex was built up along it, and finding large claw marks high up on a tree. He is a veteran hunter and knows quite well bear signs; he insisted to me these claw marks were far too high up on the tree for any black or brown bear to have made, even if they had wandered down from the mountains.
Dating from about the same time period is a report filed with BFRO (Big Foot Research Organization) of a multiple person sighting in Hendersonville. When many of the old farms were just beginning to be turned into sub-divisions a group of six people caught a Big Foot in their headlights rummaging through garbage can. When sighted the eight food creature walked away. As noted above, even in 1965 Indian Lake was by no means wilderness, although heavily wooded in parts. The BFRO Report is posted here. Even now, with decades of development, there are still herds of deer that inhabit the area, so a large biped could still have plenty of big game available to feed on if it didn’t mind all the people.
Just north of Hendersonville, a resident of the Beech area also reported a Big Foot crossing an open field just off of Long Hollow Pike. This too was some time back, but Long Hollow Pike meanders through a hilly region and sits below the Highland Rim, an area more conducive to large creatures living and feeding, with abundant fresh water and game to be had. Some time back I charted most of the published Big Foot sightings and they tended to cluster either along the Cumberland Mountains and Highland Rim area or else in the Smokey Mountain region. With economic development and the disappearance of natural habitats, it may well be that the Tennessee Stink Ape is extinct, or nearly so.
So the Stink Ape, or Wooley Booger or byrs or Grendel may be gone from the scene, but that does not necessarily mean they never existed, and for some they continue to exist in memory.
When it comes to apparitions, spectres and ghosts, the only thing that is predictable is their unpredictability.
While creepy castles and gothic mansions make for suitably moody sets for Hollywood fiction, the truth is that paranormal encounters can happen almost anyplace and anytime. Sometimes it may be a one-time singular occurrence; at other times a ghost may make its presence known almost daily, like clockwork. Similarly, almost any place can be host to a haunting. Obviously, old buildings that have a long and dolorous history are likely candidates, but even a brand new home can be the site of a paranormal event or haunting.
Such was the case one Yuletide in the village of Monkton Heathfield, located outside the town of Taunton in Somerset, England. In was close to Christmas, 1923, when a certain Mr. Gardiner, a construction contractor was bedeviled by a series of unexplained incidents in his brand new home. Monkton is a small but venerable village, named after the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, whose estates the village once resided in.
The trouble began about a week before Christmas, when Gardiner heard a strange noise, quickly followed by a blow to the back of the head. The object which struck him was an orange, which moments before had been in a bowl on a nearby dresser. No one else was present to blame the assault on the contractor, which was peculiar, since oranges don’t have legs to move about with.
Soon other inanimate objects also started to become quite animated. A chair suddenly jumped from the floor onto a table. A watch-box sitting on a table in the kitchen rose into the air and came crashing down with a thud. Then a pair of boots emerged backwards from the cupboard where they were stored and several books flew from the bookshelf where they were lodged and flew across the room. Nor was mid-day supper exempt from such happenings; while seated for the repast Father and son saw their knives move from one end of the table to the other and the pepperbox did the cake-walk in front of them. The climax to these uncanny events occurred when, in front of a room full of witnesses, a lamp arose from the table and gracefully glide onto the kitchen floor.
The frequency and oddity of happenings inside the Gardener household became such that Mr. Gardener and his son were forced to move out of their household just before Christmas. Whatever spirit or entity was active in the new house was left in possession of the home for the holidays. Whether the Gardeners ever were able to reclaim their domicile from the unnamed poltergeist is not recorded.
It was the day after Christmas, which in England is referred to as Boxing Day, when the Acting Vicar of St. Mary’s, a stately old church in the small hamlet of East Rudham, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, had a most unusual encounter. It was so singular that the divine saw fit to report it to the local newspaper at the time.
The Rev R. Brock, was serving as Acting Vicar while the regular Vicar of the parish, the Reverend Dr. Astley, was away on a trip to Algeria with his wife. It was about tea-time and the Reverend Brock was relaxing in the vicarage, steeping in the holiday spirit, no doubt, when the housekeeper rushed in, all in a huff.
“Come and see Dr. Astley!” she said.
“See Dr. Astley?” he said.
“Yes, see Dr. Astley!” she replied.
The housekeeper, obviously disturbed, led the acing vicar into the study and bade him look out the window. Reverend Brock scanned the lawn without and saw nothing unusual, at which the housekeeper exclaimed,
“You are looking in the wrong direction! Look there,” pointing over to a wall outside which contained an alcove.
Gazing over in that direction, the acting vicar did indeed see something, although at first the full import of it did not strike him. He saw a “full presentment” of a clergyman with a Cuddesdon collar gleaming white in the gathering gloom. Reverend Brock turned about to look behind, remarking to the housekeeper, “it must be a reflection of myself,” but no sooner had he said so than he realized that that was impossible, since there was no manner in which his image could have been so reflected outside.
The vision from outside the study window was of a clergyman sitting at a table or desk with books before him. The acting vicar also observed that the person sitting there had a gold chain across his waistcoat—exactly how the Reverend Astley was known to wear his watch and chain. The young divine looked through the window several times, but the presentiment (for that’s what he took it to be) did not move. Then he went outside to get a better look at the figure against the wall. As he did so, the housekeeper informed him that that spot was where Reverend Astley was want to reside and read in the summertime. Both the Acting Vicar and the housekeeper knew that the apparition they were witnessing could not possibly be the vicar—since Dr. Astley and his wife had left for Algeria on December 10th and were still there, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.
The mysterious vision finally disappeared, but the mystery of its appearance that Yuletide afternoon only deepened when the parish community learned some time later that the Vicar and his wife died in a railroad accident in Algeria just about the same time as the vision.
These days the hamlet of East Rudham is even smaller than in the late vicar’s day, the railroad line having long since ceased its service to the village. If there is any answer to be found to the singular Vicar’s Presentiment of 1908, perhaps the village elders who hold court daily at the Cat and Fiddle near the village green may provide some solution. It would, at least, provide worthy conversation on a winter’s day. Merry Christmas all ye Christmas spirits!
In addition to being the home of Edgar Cayce, the “Sleeping Prophet,” Hopkinsville’s next biggest claim to fame is as the location of the Great Goblin Encounter, also known as Kelly Green Men Case.
For the record, the creatures were not KellyGreen in color. Rather, Kelly is the rural community just outside of Hopkinsville where the close encounter occurred. That much everyone can agree on; just about everything else about the incident has been disputed ever since.
The incident occurred in 1955 and to this day ranks as one of the best documented—and scariest—close encounters in UFOlogy. Seven persons from two farm families witnessed the events and their accounts, examined and cross-examined repeatedly over the years, have stood up to withering criticism and scorn and remain remarkably consistent.
On the evening of August 21, 1955, Billy Ray Taylor of Pennsylvania was visiting the Sutton family in the rural community of Kelly, in Christian County outside of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the house had no indoor plumbing, around 7pm Billy Ray went outside to the pump to get some water. It was at this point that he observed strange multi-colored lights to the west, which he interpreted as a disc shaped craft of some sort.
Billy Ray ran into the house all excited like and told the folks inside he had seen a flying saucer. The Suttons scoffed at his sighting, telling him he must have seen a shooting star or some such.
About an hour later, the folks inside the house began to hear eerie and unexplained sounds outside. The Sutton’s dog began barking wildly, as if there were strangers lurking about; then the dog suddenly became terrified and quickly ran under the house, where it remained for the duration.
Billy Ray and the family patriarch, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton, grabbed some guns and went outside to investigate. There they saw a strange creature coming at them from a line of trees.
When it got within about twenty feet, they let loose a volley, one of which was a twelve gauge and the other a 22 cal. varmint gun. The creature flipped over and then ran into the darkness; the boys were sure they’d hit it.
Stepping off the porch, they went in search of the creature, when they spied another one sitting on an awning. Again they fired and knocked it off the roof. But as before, although they were sure they had scored a direct hit, the being seemed unharmed. A bit shaken by the encounter, the duo went back into the house.
A few minutes later, Lucky’s brother, J. C. Sutton, saw another creature peering into the house through a window. J.C. and Solomon, another kin, fired through the window at them, seemingly to no effect.
For the next several hours the little green men played whack a mole with the Taylors and Suttons, popping up at windows and doors, with the two clans replying with hot lead.
Whenever they scored a hit, they heard a hollow rattling sound, like banging around in a metal drum. The creatures also seemed to float off the ground at times, rather than walk.
Finally, the family matriarch, Grandma Lankford, counseled the boys to stop shooting at the creatures; not only did it not seem to have any effect, but the creatures did not seem to mean any harm to the humans.
Because the small children were badly frightened, around 11pm the group made a break from the house and got into their cars, making it to the Hopkinsville Police Department around 11:30pm, where they filed a report.
Police Chief Russell Greenwell, in writing up his police report, noted that the group were visibly shaken by the experience beyond reason. The Suttons, he noted, were not folks easily upset and not prone to filing complaints to the police; without weighing in on the accuracy of their account, he concluded that “something frightened them, something beyond their comprehension.” The witnesses were also judged not to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.
Elsewhere in Christian County, around 11pm a state trooper reported seeing “unusual meteor-like objects” flying overhead, with a sound “like artillery fire” emanating from them.
Upon investigating the scene of the incident,police officers themselves witnessed strange lights in the sky and in the nearby woods (although later, some would refuse to talk openly about it).
To their surprise, the officers found that nearby neighbors were also terrified and reported seeing the same strange lights in the sky, and strange sounds, at their homesteads and diners at the local Shady Oaks restaurant, also reported seeing the strange lights in the sky. .
The Hopkinsville police investigating the farmstead that night, found numerous bullet holes and hundreds of spent shells. They found a luminous patch of unknown substance on one of the fences where a creature had been shot but neglected to collect a sample for testing. Moreover, in the distance a green light was seen that night.
When the police left around two am, the green men returned and kept poking around the farmhouse until close to dawn. They were never seen again.
In the days and weeks that followed, the incident garnered national publicity and scores of curiosity seekers came visiting, some in awe, many to scoff.
People accused the witnesses of being drunk or of being liars. The usual mob of professional debunkers fabricated their well-worn explanations to deny what had happened.
At first the Suttons freely told the press and others willing to listen of their harrowing experience. Eventually, however, the ridicule and criticism by self-anointed experts caused the family to refuse to discuss their encounter with outsiders.
Apparently military types visited the farm to investigate the close encounter, but the Air Force denies ever visiting the Sutton farmstead. Curiously, though they claim never to have been there, Project Blue Book listed the case as a hoax without comment.
It is curious that Project Blue Book could make that judgment if, as they say, they never investigated it. It should be noted, however, that Hopkinsville is not far from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which, while not an Air Force base, is not only home to the 101st Airborne Division, but also to various Special Operations units. Some of these special ops units are known, but others remain top secret–officially, they don’t exist. What Special Ops units were operating there in 1955 is not known.
In 1957, one Air Force spokesmen theorized that the creatures were just some circus monkeys, painted silver, who’d escaped–which was perhaps the least believable of all the vain attempts to rationalize away the event.
Because of the creatures green color, they began to be referred to as “Goblins” by some in the media. Over time the cynics grew tired of heaping ridicule on the community and its close encounter, and, not being able to grab media attention with their visits, ceased plaguing the community.
For their part, the citizens of Hopkinsville began to embrace the incident as part of their local lore. The “Little Green Men” Days Festival is held at annually and has become a major event.
An artist’s impressions of these “Green Goblins” is even said to have inspired one of the many Pokeman anime characters.
While people may celebrate the event in song and story, to Lucky Sutton and his family it was serious business and remained so for the rest of their lives.
As his daughter related as an adult, “He never cracked a smile when he told the story because it happened to him and there wasn’t nothing funny about it. He got pale and you could see it in his eyes. He was scared to death.”
EDGAR CAYCE, The Sleeping Prophet of Hopkinsville, KY
I discussed the Bell Witch extensively in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Groundand also a bit more about her and other Tennessee witches in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so I won’t chew my cud twice on that score—at least not here. However, if you are visiting Adams to get in touch with ol’ Kate, you might want to keep going to visit another town with a reputation for the uncanny and paranormal: Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
If you take Highway 41 up the road apiece beyond Adams, you will soon cross the Tuck-asee state line and come to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a place equally worthy of note for those who derive joy in being scared out of their wits by paranormal phenomena and other high strangeness.
Hopkinsville, while considerably more urban in character than Adams, is still a quiet town most times and hardly a place one would peg as the epicenter of unexplained events or strangely gifted people. Yet on both counts Hopkinsville can hold its own with places more famous or more populous. For one thing, it is the home of Edgar Cayce, world renown as the “Sleeping Prophet.” Edgar Cayce was an unlikely candidate for notoriety, at least to start with. Born in 1877, in Beverly, just a stone’s throw south of Hopkinsville and his father would knock him about because he was such a poor student in school. When he was very young and wandering in the woods he claimed to see “little folk” cavorting about and occasionally spotted his dead grandfather. He knew grandpa was dead because he could see through him.
At the age of ten he was taken to church and from that time on diligently began reading the Bible. Then, at the age of twelve one day an angel appeared to him in a woodland shack as he was doing his daily Bible reading. The angel told him his prayers would be answered and asked him what he wanted. Cayce allegedly replied that most of all he wanted to be helpful to others, especially sick children. On advice of this same mysterious “lady” he found that if he slept on a school textbook, he would absorb all its knowledge while he slept and he soon became an exceptional student.
By 1892 Cayce was giving “readings” in his sleep relating to people’s health issues, although he tried to support himself with a number of day jobs. Although he never charged for a “reading” at one of his sleep sessions, eventually followers donated enough money to support Cayce that he could concentrate on his readings, which began to expand from health issues in to metaphysics and prophesy.
He moved to Selma, Alabama from 1912 to 1925 and from then to his death in 1945 lived in Virginia Beach, but he was buried in his hometown of Hopkinsville. Edgar Cayce, unlike many mediums, was not dogmatic about his readings and advised people to accept them only to the extent they benefitted from them; likewise he always advised to test them against real world results. When awake, Cayce claimed no conscious memory of what he had said or why he said it. His utterings remain closely studied to this day and some say they have proven remarkably accurate.
Hopkinsville is in the heart of the Pennyrile region of southern Kentucky—or Pennyroyal as some more refined folk prefer to call it—and there is available for traveler’s a “Edgar Cayce Cell Phone Tour” of Hopkinsville, while the Pennyroyal Area Museum has devoted a good part of its exhibition space to Cayce and artifacts relating to him.
Hopkinsville, being part of Bell Witch Country, also celebrates the Old Girl in October every year. There is also the annual Edgar Cayce Hometown Seminar, usually held in March, which celebrates Cayce’s life and readings.
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.
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 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.
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 TalesI 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:
porous stone: 1500 kg/m3
maybe a bit more if some kind of craft, i.e., a semi-hollow metal object
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.
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.
While I write true accounts of supernatural places and things, I am as fond as the next person of a good horror story, not to mention credible science fiction or well executed fantasy (the latter category, I’m afraid, is rarely well executed though). However, as I am hip deep in true accounts of the paranormal—or at least what I believe to be true—I get miffed at the widening gap between supernatural fictional and the real thing. 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.
I have met many people, from all walks of life, whom I believe have genuinely experienced some kind of paranormal event. I do not have much truck with professional psychics, but I have on rare occasions met or known people who may well have genuine 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. And there is a lot out there which science can’t explain.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 never forgot his Southern roots. This story, penned in 1911, is said to have inspired a classic H. P. Lovecraft tale.
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.”
While We normally focus on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go-round we are casting our net further afield and farther back in time.
As we all know–or should know–St. Nicholas, an orthodox Christian saint, has as his special domain is Yuletide and that in particular he is the patron saint of children.
How exactly did St. Nicholas became the patron of children? This 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 a 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 and sometimes Daddy’s were not so nice to their girl-chiles). To this day on his feast in the East folk still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to children to make them look like money.
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.
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:
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.
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. One night on the Jimmy Fallon Show, 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.
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.
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.
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.