From the time I was small, stories have been my obsession–one reason, perhaps, that I love ghost stories.
A good storyteller–like my friend Shelly Tucker–can make a story so real you feel as if you’re actually there, a participant rather than a mere listener.
But what if–just what if–a storyteller turns out to be-well–more than just a storyteller?
This tale, which addresses that very issue, comes from the area around Murphy, North Carolina, and is told in James V. Burchill, Linda J. Crider and Peggy Kendrick’s 1997 book The Cold, Cold Hand: Stories of Ghosts and Haunts from the Appalachian Foothills. Frankly, it gives me the willies.
It begins with that most prosaic of events: a Boy Scout campout.
The scoutmasters of this particular troop were quite prosaic men, too; one was a math and science teacher at a technical school and the other a police officer of many years’ standing–and neither of them could tell a story to save his life.
They knew that it’s practically a rule on Boy Scout campouts that there be a campfire and ghost stories told late into the evening, but their troop was just plum out of luck with them.
They’d been out there three days with no stories, and the boys were getting restless. Then one of the boys had a bright idea. They hiked each day, half a mile there and a half mile back, to a little country store for an ice cream and a drink and such supplies as they might need. The store was unpretentiously called Pa’s Country Store; the owner, of course, was Pa. So the boy said to Mr. Philhower, the teacher, Why not ask Pa if he knows anybody who could tell us some ghost stories?
Mr. Philhower, about at his wits’ end, allowed as how that sounded like an excellent idea. That very day, while the boys milled around the store, he put the question to Pa.
Off the top of his head, Pa couldn’t think of anybody, but he promised he’d ask around amongst his afternoon customers and see what they had to say.
Well, along about dark, the scouts had finished supper and were toasting marshmallows over a campfire when a tall, handsome young man came walking up to them.
He asked without preamble, “Are you the ones hunting for somebody to tell ghost stories?”
“Indeed,” Mr. Philhower said. “Mighty kind of you to come out here on short notice. I’m Mr. Philhower, and that’s Joe Dugan, and these are our scouts. And your name?”
“Blue,” the young man said. “John Blue. And I can tell a story or two.”
So the boys made room for him there by the fire, and John Blue set in to telling tales. He was a good storyteller, one of those who could make you see the ghosts with his mere words. The boys were both entertained and scared, just a bit; they crept a bit closer to one another as Blue’s tales went on.
Finally, along about midnight, Blue said, “All right, this is my last story of the night, gentlemen–my very favorite ghost story.
“Now yonder by the lake there stand the ruins of a great house. It was owned, fifty years ago, by a family named Howard. They only came there for the summer–they were a rich family who came from away in the city somewhere–and brought their rich friends with them.
“There was Mr. Howard, and his wife, and a beautiful daughter. The daughter’s name was Laurel, and that summer, fifty years ago, she had just broken off her engagement to a young man back in the city, and took up with another man.
“Her ex-fiance didn’t take it very well. He took to calling the girl many times a day and into the night, making threats against her and the family. They actually came to their summer house early that year, just to get away from him and his scary behavior.”
“A stalker,” murmured one of the boys.
Blue said, as if he hadn’t heard the boy, “It was no use, though. That young man, driven insane by anger and humiliation, followed them here to their mansion. Mr. Howard learned that he was in Murphy, over there–” He pointed in the general direction of the little mountain town. “So Mr. Howard called the sheriff, who sent two deputies out to investigate.
“When they got to the house, though, they found it burning–burning–They could hear the Howards screaming and begging for help, but no man living could walk into those flames, and so they could only stand and watch and listen as the great house fell in on itself and the screams died with the Howards.
“Just about the time the roof caved in, one of the deputies saw a man running toward the lake. Thinking that he might know something about the fire, they chased him right up to the water’s edge. “Stop or we’ll shoot!’ they shouted at him.
“He just stood there laughing, a high, ugly, evil laugh that echoed around the lake, and then he turned and walked into the water. Both deputies fired at him, and he sank into the lake.
“They dragged the lake, but never found a trace of his body. But the people who live around here say that sometimes that man–who was, it turned out, Laurel Howard’s jilted lover–still walks along the lakeshore of a night.
“And that’s my last story. Good night, and thank you for listening to my little tales.”
“Thank you, Mr. Blue,” boys and scoutmasters chorused, and John Blue got up from the campfire and walked away.
The boys, pleasantly spooked, went to bed.
The next day, Mr. Philhower told Pa, when the troop made their daily hike to the store, “Thanks for sending that man out. He really told some wonderful stories.”
Pa looked at him over the top of his glasses. “Oh, did he? Did he happen to mention what his name was?”
“John Blue. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” Pa said deliberately, “y’all know them ruins there across the lake? That was the Howard house. Fifty years ago, it was burnt to the ground, with the Howards inside. They say the fire was set by the Howard daughter’s ex-boyfriend. His name was John Blue. And now they say–”
Mr. Philhower left before Pa could finish his story.
And never again, as long as he was a scoutmaster, did he ever ask around for a teller of ghost tales.