Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North. . .

So opens that perennial Christmas classic “White Christmas”, written by Irving Berlin in 1942 and popularized by Bing Crosby in a film called Holiday Inn; years later, the song was revived in a film called White Christmas, in which it was performed as a memorable duet by Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

For what it’s worth, though, white Christmases aren’t exactly the norm, even, apparently, “up North”. According to Peter Haining, the renowned British paranormal researcher and author, we owe dreams of a white Christmas to none other than our old friend Charles Dickens and his “Ghost of an Idea” A Christmas Carol, that imaginative tale of a miser’s reclamation in a snowy, foggy Victorian London.

In his preface to The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens (1982), Haining comments: . . .according to Professor Hubert Lamb of the climactic research unit at East Anglia University, snowy Christmases are actually very infrequent. . .Professor Lamb found the explanation for the belief during research into past weather records, which showed that for the first eight years of Dickens’s life there was a white Christmas every year with either snow or white hoarfrost (page 9).

It so happens that Dickens, born in 1812, came along at the tag end of the most recent period some call a Little Ice Age, a period of centuries during which weather patterns mimicked the great freezes that, in past ages, lasted for millenia. The last such began circa the year 1400. It was particularly severe in the late sixteenth century, when, it’s recorded, England’s Queen Elizabeth I took daily walks, during several memorable winters, on a River Thames frozen nearly rock solid.

Another geological phenomenon was also in effect in Dickens’s early years; in 1815, a gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies spread so much dust and ash in the atmosphere that much of the Northern Hemisphere experienced massive crop failures and unusual winter conditions (with much of New England and Canada in particular reporting snow as late as June in the following year) that 1816 is still remembered as “the year without a summer”.

Even so, Haining’s Professor Lamb points out that Christmas weather tends more toward sunny days breaking up more severe weather patterns, not the romantic snowy ones best observed from indoors, by a roaring fire, with hot chocolate and cookies and a good book and. . .

Ahem. Pardon me. I come from an area where white Christmases are rare–our more recent, in 2010, came forty-two years after its predecessor–

but I’ll dream of one nonetheless.

Specially when my man Hampson sings about one. 😉

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I have fallen in love with the Halloween Snickers ™ commercial that features a Horseless Headsman, who turns back to his normal Headless Horseman self when he eats a Snickers. It reminded me of this story, the only one I’ve ever written about a headless horseman–originally posted on Blogstream, and here in a somewhat different form in 2010.

Born around 1740, the son of a minor Irish lord called Galty Mallory and his Hungarian wife, who had Tartar blood from her mother’s side of the family, Ormond Mallory inherited Castle Sheela, the family home, upon his father’s death when he was eighteen; his mother promptly moved out, taking his younger brother and two younger sisters with her, already aware of what kind of life her eldest wanted to lead: he cared for nothing but horses, vice, and women—frequently women affianced or married to other men.

He had a favorite horse, the one being in God’s creation that captured and held both his affection and attention. That horse was called Follow, because, from the time he was a colt able to walk, he followed Ormond Mallory everywhere. Ormond taught Follow to come into the house, and climb the main staircase to wait outside his master’s room, on mornings when they were scheduled for a ride or a hunt. He even went so far, eventually, as to build Follow his own special ramp, with four shallow rises, to make it easier for his pet to climb up to the landing outside his bedroom door.

Eventually, his predilection for other men’s wives got Ormond Mallory into deep trouble; he was beaten so badly–by a Jason Fermoy, who caught Mallory in a compromising position with his wife in a lovers’ lane near Castle Sheela–that he was laid up for months. During that time, his mother paid him a visit—the first time she had done so in nearly twelve years—and he was surprised and furtively glad to see her. While he convalesced, he agreed to do two things for her: to have his portrait painted and hung in the Long Gallery with the other lords of Castle Sheela, and to have a sumptuous Christmas gathering for the whole family.

The portrait was soon done, and placed in the Long Gallery. It shows a slender young man with light brown hair tied back, chilly blue eyes, a typical eighteenth century suit of clothes, and a Hungarian Csikos coat, white with brilliant embroidery, in tribute to his Hungarian ancestry.

Time flew by, and soon Christmas Day came. Ormond Mallory and his beloved Follow, who had visited every day of his master’s convalescence, had a hunt to attend that morning. Those who hunted with them would say later that Mallory arrived late and that he appeared to have been in a fight; he had cuts and bruises around his mouth, and he seemed unnaturally nervous, looking around shiftily as if expecting further attack.

Christmas dinner with his family was to begin at six o’clock in the evening, with him presiding from the head of the table. At six o’clock, Ormond still had not arrived home from the hunt. Brother and servants went out looking for him, but soon returned, driven in by gathering darkness and icy cold weather.

At eight o’clock, the anxious family and servants heard a familiar sound at the door: Follow, mounting the steps of the entryway to be let in. Ormond’s brother and a servant girl both went to open it, and collapsed in horror at what they saw.

Follow was in a terrible state of panic, covered in foam and sweat and badly winded. Tied in place on his back was a body dressed in the clothes Ormond Mallory had worn when he left that morning—but only a body; where the head should be there was nothing but a bloody stump, where the head had been clean stricken off. As the brother and servant watched, Follow made the last effort of his devoted life, dragging himself and his hideous burden up the ramp to the landing outside Ormond’s room—where he fell dead.

Ormond Mallory’s head was never found, and his murder was never solved; Jason Fermoy, who had beaten him so mercilessly the summer before, had an unbreakable alibi. Mallory was buried, headless, in the family cemetery. It is said that, for many years afterward, a heavily-veiled woman—none other than Mrs. Fermoy—would visit his grave quite frequently.

Castle Sheela was inherited by Ormond’s brother, Dominic. Dominic’s first order of business was to tear down the ramp his brother had installed for Follow. That destruction didn’t stop Follow—or Ormond—from repeating that terrible last journey up to Ormond’s room. Many, many occupants of the house have reported seeing a shadowy, spent horse with a bloody, headless rider tied in the saddle climbing on thin air where the ramp once stood; other times, only the sounds are heard.

On Christmas Day, the castle’s huge front door will suddenly open and bang back against the wall. Even stranger, something happens to Ormond Mallory’s portrait. On Christmas Day only, the head simply vanishes behind a smudge of dark but subtly glowing mist. The next day, the smudge is gone, and Ormond Mallory again surveys the room with a cold smile and wintry eyes.

The story of the dreadful death of Ormond Mallory and his horse, and the strange haunting of Castle Sheela, comes from James Reynolds’ 1947 book Ghosts in Irish Houses.

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The Tenth Commandment begins with four simple words: thou shalt not covet. . .. This story, from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, puts a ghostly spin on the consequences should you, indeed, break that commandment.

Like other ghost stories, it begins with two sisters in love with the same man.

Mary and Kate were orphans from their teens, and shared a cottage not far inland from the shore. The men of their tiny village all made their livings from the sea, and the women worked and waited for the sea to send them home.

Mary was vivacious, forward and somewhat of a brat. Kate, the younger of the two, was quiet, shy and kindhearted.

They were both in love with a young man named David Blount, and he loved one of them in return: gentle Kate. When his preference became apparent, Mary, in a pet, affected to hate him.

With some of his earnings from his work as captain of a crew that rescued survivors of wrecked ships, David bought Kate a lovely diamond ring. It never left her finger from the time he placed it there, and she was often heard to remark, when storms crashed on the beach, that the ring was a comfort and a promise that he would return to her, no matter how foul the weather.

That comfort failed one night when his little boat was crushed by a mountainous wave, and David and his entire crew were lost.

Kate accepted the news in silence, but soon it became apparent that her outward acquiescence to fate and the sea hid a grief that was slowly killing her. Only on occasion, when she looked at the diamond David would never replace with a wedding band, did a glow of happiness return to her face.

She was waiting for Death.

For that matter, so was Mary, who seemed to become more feverishly vivacious as her sister faded.

Finally, one morning, Mary ran to a neighbor’s house and pounded on the door. When the neighbor answered, she fell into the house, babbling and weeping Kate is dead. . .oh my God, Kate is dead. . .

Mary refused to have anyone come sit with her that night as she kept watch over Kate’s dead body. She gave out a story that her grief was simply too great to share with anyone.

The truth was somewhat more complex.

From the time of Kate’s engagement, Mary had coveted the lovely diamond ring that David Blount had placed on her sister’s finger. As Kate lay a corpse in their small front room, Mary covered all the windows and lit a single candle. At the midnight hour, with rain rattling on the roof and the long sigh of the waves for background music, she pried the diamond off Kate’s cold finger and placed it on her own.

No one suspected that Mary had added theft to her other sin. When they saw her wearing the ring at Kate’s funeral, they assumed Kate had bestowed it upon her as she lay dying.

Some little time passed, and Mary was enjoying her ill-gotten treasure when, on a night of storm and wind, she heard a a wailing, weeping voice at the door: Mary, let me in. . .let me in. . .it’s so cold, Mary. . .let me in. . .I’m cold. . .so cold. . . and knew it for Kate’s voice.

From then on Mary knew no peace. She tried to ignore her sister’s voice, but Kate came back night after night after night, always crying let me in. . .I’m so cold. . .

Finally, a sleepless and terrified Mary confided in a neighbor woman about the voice that haunted her. With Celtic assurance the woman advised her to invite the visitor–Mary did not confide that she knew it for dead Kate–to come in and warm herself by the fire.

That night, when the wailing began, Mary called Come in! COME IN, I say!

The door blew open on a chill breeze, and with it blew in a shadowy, womanly form. The form stopped just short of where Mary stood by the fireplace.

Yes; the form was Kate. Kate was dead, and Mary was alive, and Mary had the ring. . .

and, rather stupidly, she began to taunt her sister:

Oh, Kate, she tittered, where are your beautiful white hands that David loved so?

In the ground, Kate replied dismally.

And your ring? Mary could not resist lifting her hand and flaunting the ring, its facets brilliant in the firelight.

The taunt ended in a shriek of horror as the shade rushed her.

It was mid-morning before the neighbor came over to see if Mary had taken her advice. She found Mary sitting on the hearth before a dead fire, in a state of deep shock, staring down at her left hand. The ring finger of that hand was black with bruises, and the great diamond gone.

The Outer Banks tale of Kate’s ring comes from Nancy Roberts’ 1962 book Ghosts of the Carolinas.

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This is a story not of ghosts, but of monsters and magic.

Downtown Knoxville has a secret under its streets: a honeycomb of caves and tunnels. Out of one of the caves, they say, a monster comes sometimes, on the darkest nights, and roams down Gay Street, in the business district. This monster is in the shape of one of our black bears–which do sometimes wander into the city limits–but nobody ever saw a black bear as big as this: he’s said to walk upright and stand over fifteen feet tall–taller than the biggest grizzly, let alone black bear, that ever lived.

Other times, not a bear, but an old, old Cherokee man is seen, walking that same street: a small man, clad only in a loincloth.

There’s a legend that accounts for them both.

Call them explorers, call them fiddlefooted–call one of them, in fact, Daniel Boone–but back in the day they were called long hunters: men who would go out to hunt game, find themselves in new territory, and stay away from their homes for three, four or even more years, hunting and scouting, and sometimes returning to lead settlers to the new lands.

Sometime in the late 1700s, one such hunter–whose name no one remembers–found himself in the wilderness around what was then White’s Fork and is now Knoxville. It was just around this time of year; autumn drifting inexorably toward winter–and soon, he would need to find a place to stay put and warm until spring. On this particular day, he was stalking a deer through the woods when he was distracted by a bear.

Bearskins made wonderful warm robes, and the long hunter, knowing he would need one soon, forgot the deer and followed the bear.

This bear was wise to the ways of hunters and their guns, and it led him on a long chase through the woods, always just out of reach of a clear shot. The hunter found himself falling farther back as the bear turned and began to run along the muddy banks of the Tennessee River, leaving clear tracks.

The hunter sat down and rested on a rock, drank some water and ate some dried meat from his pack, then resumed following the bear’s tracks. A little way upriver, they turned away from the river and headed toward a bluff, disappearing into a large cave that ran back into the bluff for quite a long way; the hunter could see about fifty feet into the cave, but the bear wasn’t in sight. He couldn’t even see eyeshine.

Still peering into the cave, he was startled when an old, old Cherokee man stepped out from behind a large rock by the entrance. He was shorter than the hunter, very thin, and wore nothing but a loincloth. His hair was white and hung below his waist, and he had the oddest pale eyes the hunter had ever seen.

The old man had a staff made of hickory in one hand. He tapped the ground at the hunter’s feet and asked, in perfect English, Do you seek Brother Bear, white man?

The hunter, still shaken by the old man’s sudden appearance, stuttered yes.

He’s in there, the old man said, pointing into the cave with his staff. He’s waiting for you.

Did you see him go in? the hunter asked suspiciously. It was dawning on him that there was something almightily strange about this whole business.

The ancient Cherokee said only, He’s waiting for you.

Just then, there came from the cave the mighty roar of a bear. It was of course magnified by the cave walls, but in his nervous state the hunter only registered that by the sound of it there was a bear in the cave–a much, much bigger one than the one he had been following.

The old man raised an eyebrow. This is his ground, and he will defend it and himself. Are you going in after him?

The hunter may not ever have read Shakespeare’s immortal the better part of valor is discretion, but he knew the concept.

Not today, he said decidedly, and walked away.

He turned back when another roar came from the cave, not as bloodcurdling as the last but still scary. The old man was still standing at the mouth of the cave, watching him, his pale eyes bright with mockery.

The hunter walked a ways away, then turned and hunkered down behind a bush, looking back toward the cave. He still had the feeling something wasn’t right about this whole situation.

The old man was still standing there, but the air around him was changing: shimmering, sparkling as the old man’s figure began to shift. It grew wider and taller and lost its human shape altogether–

to be replaced by a gigantic black bear, taller than the cave’s entrance and wide as–

The hunter couldn’t think what that bear’s chest was wide as. He only knew he was seeing Cherokee magic at work.

The giant bear stood on its hind legs and gave a roar that echoed for miles.

After a moment or two, a much smaller bear–the one the hunter had been chasing before this strange encounter–came out of the cave. It seemed as overawed by the great bear as was the hunter. The huge bear roared again, and the small one, sensing that the hunter was no longer close by, slowly disappeared into the woods.

The hunter thought about following it, but only for a moment–

for the great bear turned its head, looked directly at the spot where the hunter still hunkered behind his puny bush protection, and gave a final roar that sounded like words. . .

Bbbbrrrrooooottttthhhheeeerrr Bbbbeaaarrrrrr!

The hunter left the area. He may even have gone home and settled down as a farmer.

Shaman or shapeshifter, the old man and his counterpart, the most enormous black bear anyone has ever seen, are said to walk the Knoxville night even now.

I’d stay out of either’s way, myself.

The legend of Brother Bear is told in the great Charles Edwin Price’s 1999 book Mysterious Knoxville.

Today my Vols will, most likely, get an almighty wallopin’ at the hands of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, but they’re playing at Neyland, hence I chose a Knoxville story.

And with that said–GO VOLS!!!!

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In 1958, the Kingston Trio made a recording of a ballad fragment based on a sensational 1866 murder that occurred in the mountains of western North Carolina. They are said to have learned it from a man named Frank Proffitt. The details given in their version are frustratingly vague: only the name of the putative murderer–Tom Dooley–is given, and he, in first person, allows that he met some anonymous her on the mountain and stabbed her to death. A man named Grayson, whom Tom blames for his arrest, is mentioned in passing, and the ballad ends conventionally, with Tom bewailing his fate; he has been sentenced to hang.

In 1964, the legendary North Carolina guitarist/singer Doc Watson recorded an alternate version of the song. Doc, interestingly, grew up a bare five miles from Frank Proffitt, but the two songs on the same topic could not be more different.

In Doc’s version, we learn that the victim’s name was Laura “Laurie” Foster, that the killer “hid her clothes and shoes”, that they were apparently running away to be married, that he buried her in a shallow grave. No cause of death is given for “poor Laurie Foster”. Grayson is given the title of sheriff. And we learn that Tom Dooley was a fairly good oldtime fiddle player.

Embedded in the midst of this information, though, is this verse, which puts a whole new complexion on the story.

I know they’re gonna hang me,
Tomorrow I’ll be dead,
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie’s head. . .

Novelist Sharyn McCrumb, whose 2011 book The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is based on the murder of Laura Foster and the subsequent hanging of Tom Dooley, makes a very strong case for the truth of this verse. She researched the surviving trial records and local lore for several years before writing the book. On a trip to North Carolina, which she detailed for Blue Ridge magazine, she was told again and again by locals that Tom was not the murderer. The constant verdict was Ann did it.


His surname was not Dooley; it was actually spelled Dula, although it was pronounced Dooley. In 1866, when he was accused of killing a local woman named Laura Foster, he was barely twenty years old and only a year home from the Civil War. And–shall we say–he had quite a reputation as a ladies’ man.

His one true love, it seems, was a childhood sweetheart named Ann Foster. And there is one fact in this tangled tale that is beyond dispute: Ann Foster was a staggeringly beautiful–and staggeringly selfish–woman. She came from a family that had a reputation for promiscuity, but she had married a respectable local farmer and shoemaker named James Melton in 1859, and was, by 1866, the mother of two. Her marriage, however, was no insurmountable bar to a continuing sexual relationship with Tom Dula. She and Tom often made love and slept together in a bed with James Melton sleeping alone in a separate bed in the same room.

Among other women with whom Dula was involved were cousins of Ann Melton: Pauline Foster and Laura Foster. Pauline Foster had come over the mountains from Tennessee early in 1866, and she became a catalyst for murder.

Pauline Foster was being treated for pox; not smallpox, but syphilis, by a Wilkes County doctor. It is believed that she infected Tom Dula, who in turn infected both Ann Melton and Laura Foster.

Laura Foster was described in newspapers of the time as beautiful but frailfrail being a euphemism for promiscuous. Although of marriageable age, she was keeping house for her widowed father and raising several younger brothers. Rumor had it that she was engaged to Tom Dula (although he had been heard several times to declare he cared absolutely nothing for the girl) and that they were planning to run away to be wed.

(It is a measure of the brutality of Laura’s short life that her father declared, after her disappearance, that he didn’t care if she never came back, but he did want his mare back.)

Sometime on or around May 26, 1866, Laura Foster took a bundle of her clothing and a pair of leather shoes (made for her by James Melton), stole her father’s mare, and left home. The mare came home a couple of days later, unharmed. Laura was never seen alive again.

Tom Dula was suspected from the beginning of having done away with Laura; both he and Ann Melton apparently suspected she was the source of the pox, although Tom had also been intimate with Pauline Foster, who undoubtedly had the pox at the time of their relations, while Laura did not.

Laura’s body, buried in a shallow, four-foot-long grave, was finally located in August of 1866. Dr. Carter–the local physician who was also treating Pauline Foster for syphilis–found that she had died of a single stab wound through the ribs, and put paid to another rumor: she had not been pregnant at the time of her death.

Tom Dula ran away first to Watauga County, where he worked for a farmer named Grayson for a few weeks before crossing over into Tennessee. He was captured by North Carolina sheriff’s officers in Trade, Tennessee, and returned to North Carolina.

He and Ann Foster Melton, based on the testimony of Pauline Foster, were both charged with murder. Tom, twice convicted, was hanged in May 1868, two years after Laura’s murder. Before he was hanged, he laboriously wrote out a statement in which he completely exonerated Ann. She was acquitted and sent home. Several years later, she died, still in her thirties, possibly of tertiary syphilis. Doc Watson, whose great-grandmother was at Ann’s deathbed, said the dying woman complained continually of black cats stalking the room and–perversely significant–of a sound like frying bacon.

The mountain people, though, believe Ann was the actual killer of Laura Foster–and not only because she suspected Laura of passing the pox to Tom and thus to her, but for the oldest motive in the world: jealousy.

McCrumb, after studying trial transcripts and newspapers of the period, concurs. Her novel about the case, therefore, is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit–and her contention is that Ann Melton was provoked to a killing rage through the machinations of Pauline Foster. Tom Dula, in this view, literally did not even harm a hair on poor little Laurie’s head; he merely helped small-framed and lazy Ann bury the body.

Some of her points–such as the identity of the man Laura Foster was meeting the morning she disappeared (it wasn’t Tom)–are purely speculative, but in the absence of other facts as plausible as any. The most compelling aspect of her story, however, is the presentation of the character of Pauline Melton–a homely, loveless female Iago who sets out to destroy her cousin Ann out of sheer hatred and tangles two relative innocents in the web.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, this novel is definitely worth a read.

In passing let me note that I have never run across any references to ghosts of Tom, Laura, or Ann. McCrumb herself points out that she regards the story as an Appalachian version of Wuthering Heights–which I regard as somewhat of a stretch, but what the hey, it’s her story–and has one character blatantly crib from Bronte and declare that he could not imagine “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

So, it seems, that whatever their trials in life, they rest in peace.

Laura and Ann are buried in marked graves, as is Tom. As for Pauline Foster, she is said to have given birth to a mixed-race child after having married a much older man; beyond that, she simply disappears from the historical record.

For the record: I was convinced of Ann Melton’s guilt from the first time I heard Doc’s version of the ballad, thirty years or more ago. Call it woman’s intuition. 😉

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Imagine, if you will, a room like this:

Decorated for Christmas, it’s warm and cozy. Now then, imagine that over to the righthand side of the fireplace, there sits a man in a large armchair. He’s not a handsome man by any means, but his face is strongly marked by intelligence and humor—and he is about to work magic.

All stories are magic, but there are some that gain in the telling by being read aloud. So imagine, also, a group of students—all male, for this man is provost of a famous British preparatory school—seated in chairs or on the floor, coltish legs and sharp elbows pulled in, anticipating wonders.

We owe the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas mainly to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s most famous work in the genre, A Christmas Carol, is subtitled Being, a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens, as editor of various magazines in the course of his career, always put out a Christmas annual which consisted in the main of ghost stories, by some of the most famous writers of his day: Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, and of course Dickens himself.

The man who is about to read to his students was born too late to submit his stories to Dickens. Montague Rhodes James is, however, arguably the finest of all writers of fictional ghost stories.

Born the youngest son of a Sussex clergyman in 1862, he was also one of the unlikeliest. By profession a historian (mainly of medieval England), he lived out his life a bachelor, first as a Cambridge University chancellor and, for the last eighteen years of his life as provost of Eton. There would seem to be nothing in his background to account for his taste for the macabre.

In his spare time, however, he wrote ghost stories. At first he read them to his fellow Cambridge dons during the Christmas season; later, for his pupils at Eton.

In our own day, we are used to writers in the horror genre who use bloody menaces—serial killers, killer clowns, demons, rabid dogs, kinetically gifted teens (yes, Stephen King, I’m primarily, but not solely, talking about you)—to scare us witless. Not once does M. R. James resort to this type of over-the-top plotline, or, in King’s evocative phrase, go for the gross-out, yet James’s stories can scare one into turning on extra lights, and checking dark corners, strictly by the power of suggestion. In the preface to a collection of his stories called A Warning to the Curious, the author Ruth Rendell—herself no mean hand at creating uncanny atmospheres—gives a near perfect description of how James achieves these scares:

His stories begin quietly, often with a description of a place, a town or a country house or library, and his traveller to whom in a little while dreadful things will happen. There are—at first—no ghosts and demons, only a gradually increasing, indefinable, slow menace. And James’s characters bring trouble on themselves by such simple innocent actions, by being a little too curious, by merely examining an old manuscript or borrowing a certain book, by picking up an apparently harmless object on the beach. (A Warning to the Curious, pages vii-viii.)

The stories to which Rendell refers, in that final sentence, are, respectively, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook“, “The Tractate Middoth,” (which is, unfortunately, not available online) and “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad“, but the general idea holds true for all of James’s stories. Not to mention that these stories have influenced a good many writers—even Stephen King—who came after James; there is a scene in King’s 1977 novel The Shining that must have been inspired by one in James’s early story “Lost Hearts“, in which a young boy is frightened by a ghastly figure he sees in a bathtub.

It is astonishing, as well, that James’s influence should have spread so far when his output in the genre consists of no more than thirty-one short stories.

I suspect, though, that one thing that makes them so memorable is, simply, that James himself first read them aloud—and he must have been a wonderful reader, for none of the fellow professors or students who heard him read them at Christmastime ever forgot them. At least one of his pupils, the English actor Christopher Lee, has read James’s work on BBC radio, and shared his memories of hearing “Monty” in his youth. (James died in 1936.)

I frankly cannot do any sort of justice to James’s work; my powers of description aren’t equal to the task. However, his best stories are available online: to those linked above I would add “Count Magnus“, a terrifying tale of a medieval Faust figure and his familiar; “Casting the Runes“, in which a practitioner of black magic falls victim to his own wicked spell; “The Mezzotint“, a story of a strange engraving; and “A Warning to the Curious“, loosely based on the actual discovery, in 1687, of a Saxon crown buried on the eastern coast of England.

When I’m reading James’s stories, I make sure that my back is to the wall and the room is well-lit. Such is their dark magic.

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During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Yep, it’s that kind of day in Knobite Corner: rainy, chilly, no brighter than twilight–I’ve even been known to refer to weather like this as “House of Usher” weather. And it got me thinking about the sad, contradictory genius who wrote about that dreadful place–and so many other horrors.

Easy enough, after all, to imagine Poe as never having been a living breathing man, but merely a shadow who whispered and shouted, laughed and cried, loved and lost–a shadow with no peers as a chronicler of the macabre. Yet he did live and breathe.

Trouble is, he–and his loved ones–never left some of the places where they lived–in particular, a small house in a rundown area of Baltimore, Maryland.

The little brick townhouse on North Amity Street was built, most likely, sometime around 1830: a working man’s house in a working man’s district. With four and a half rooms–two on the ground floor, two upstairs, and a tiny attic where Poe himself wrote and slept–, it was a tight squeeze for the four people who lived there: Poe, barely into his twenties, his elderly paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, his aunt Maria Clemm, and Maria’s daughter, Virginia, the young cousin whom Poe married when she turned thirteen.

It was, possibly, the most settled period of Poe’s life. The four lived there quite happily from 1832 to 1835, leaving the place, never to return, after Elizabeth Poe died in 1835.

Yet this house seems to an alarming amount of psychic residue from Poe’s time there, despite having been inhabited by others until 1922. The house sat vacant from that year until 1949, when it became a house museum and historical site.

Some of the most compelling reports of ghostly activity in the Poe House come from 1968, when rioting broke out in many cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All electrical power on North Amity Street and the surrounding area was out, yet concerned neighbors summoned police when they spotted strange, flickering lights in Poe House. Unable to enter the house because they had no key, and–so they said–unwilling to break the door down lest they open the house to looters, officers waited until morning, when a tour guide arrived, to go in. A search found no evidence that anyone had been in the house at all during those dark hours.

That occurrence may be at the root of a report from the 1980s, when no less august a publication than the New York Times claimed that gang members in the area were being scared out of vandalizing the house by the ghost of Poe himself, whom the gang members referred to as “Mr. Eddie”.

But there have been other occurrences–so many that curator Jeff Jerome has on occasion been accused of putting about stories of hauntings to boost the tourist trade, although many of the events predate his tenure, which began in the 1970s.

During the 1960s, long before the flickering lights incident, tourists complained of being tapped on the shoulder by some unseen being. These taps were, without exception, reported from the bedroom that had been Elizabeth Poe’s.

In 1980, during a seance in the house sponsored by a local radio station, one pair of psychics–man and wife–complained to Jerome that he had promised “no tricks”–but they had heard voices and movement from Poe’s attic room while they were in the grandmother’s bedroom; investigation proved that no one living had been up there that night.

Psychics have also reported the presence of a heavyset elderly woman with gray hair–presumably the shade of Elizabeth Poe–in the back bedroom. After Mrs. Poe’s death, young Virginia lived in that room until she, her mother and Poe moved.

One of the most startling events happened in 1984, when a dramatic production of Poe’s story Berenice, which he had written while living in the house, was being presented. The actress playing Berenice was dressing in the upstairs back bedroom when Jeff Jerome, downstairs, heard a loud crash. He ran upstairs to find the actress near panic; a window in the room had fallen out and smashed on the floor–a window that could only have been removed by someone physically lifting it out of the frame and dropping it.

In addition to the little house in Baltimore, Poe is said to haunt at least a half-dozen sites in New York City’s Greenwich Village. One of those sites is a little house on West 3rd Street, where he, Virginia and Mrs. Clemm lived during 1844 -45 and where Virginia died.

Another place he’s said to haunt is the once-infamous General Wayne Inn–now a Jewish cultural center, from what I understand–in Merion, Pennsylvania. Poe dined there a number of times while living in nearby Philadelphia, and is said to have written several stanzas of his most famous poem, “The Raven”, while sitting by a window there. In 1843, he carved his initials into the window sill by his table.

Patrons at a pub in Baltimore’s famous Fells Point district claim to have seen Poe’s ghost there. Poe died in delirium on October 7, 1849, in a hospital nearby; he was last reported having been seen drinking in the pub, now called The Horse You Came In On, before being found in a gutter and taken to the hospital.


Arthur Myers, The Ghostly Register (1986)

Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (1992)

Michael Norman and Beth Scott, Haunted America (1994)

————. Haunted Historic America (1995)

Dennis William Hauck, Haunted Places: The National Directory (1994 edition).

The quote from “The Fall of the House of Usher” comes from The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe (1983).

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one last Poe mystery: the “Poe Toaster”, a man dressed in black who, from 1949 to 2009, visited Poe’s grave–a saga in itself–every January 19, Poe’s birthday, leaving a fifth of cognac and three red roses before calmly walking out of Westminster Churchyard in Baltimore, not to be seen again until the next year. He was last seen in 2009, on Poe’s bicentennial, and one can only wonder if, someday, someone will resume those mysterious visits.

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