Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Mysterious Case of a Disappearing Town (and the mystery of it showing up in my inbox)

So, my mom was cleaning out her inbox (a Herculean task no doubt) and kept finding interesting little e-mails with links to articles on strange phenomena or snippets of dialogue or nascent story ideas that she would pass on to me in hopes they would manifest into something like a good Strange State post. One that caught my eye was about a disappearing town. I was intrigued, but as I began reading it I got the sense that I was reading fiction. But it was really good fiction. She thought perhaps I had written it, but it's not mine. She has no clue where it came from or who wrote it. Who knows? Maybe she wrote it and forgot all about it. I'm going to share it with you now because, though rough in spots, it's got an eerie Lovecraftian style and a cool premise.....

One recalls the town of Urkhammer, Iowa, during the 1920s and early '30s. For years people passed by the bustling burg of Urkhammer without giving it a second thought. Many people even drove through it, and there are rumors that transactions took place between tourists and the pale, mute Urkhammerovians. In 1928 the first ontological doubts about the town began when aerial photographs showed only empty fields where there should have been homes and streets and stores surrounded by farms and waving fields of grain. A week or so later a lost tourist had his Marmot Speedster topped off with gasoline at the Urkhammer Esso station, then, two miles beyond the town's borders, discovered that his tank was empty. He walked back to demand a refund from the conniving general store and gas pump emporium, only to discover that, regardless of how far he walked, the town remained the same distance ahead of him. Fortunately another motorist picked him up after an hour or two and replenished his car's fuel supply, but the man had been shaken to the core and required a prolonged sojourn in an alpine sanitarium. In 1929 the Davenport Clarion-Sun-Telegraph newspaper published both stories. Doubtlessly there would have been a strong public reaction had not the story appeared in the same issue of the paper as the Wall Street stock market crash. In the following week's edition (the last before the Clarion-Sun-Telegraph itself failed) was a strong protest from an apparent resident of Urkhammer, a certain Fatima Morgana (Miss), disputing the apparent nonexistence of the town and relating her life story there as a schoolteacher and Anti-Saloon League activist. But her letter to the editor was lost in the brouhaha of plant closings, stockbroker suicides and the sudden popularity of apple sellers on streetcorners. Urkhammer's own newspaper, the weekly Bugle-Picayune Advertiser, ran the now-classic headline, "Rumors of Our Nonexistence Have Been Greatly Exaggerated," for which they were sued by the estate of the late Samuel Clemens. Urkhammer remained undisturbed throughout 1930 and 1931. Passersby stilled waved at children playing in back yards as they passed on Route #41, although there was little traffic now, and much of it was by horse-drawn wagon as farmers attempted to save their old homesteads by traveling to larger cities to vend their wares. But disaster struck in 1932 when a convoy of Illinois farm families, fleeing the ruins of their Dust Bowl farms for California, decided to spend the night on the outskirts of Urkhammer. Two of these wandering souls pooled the camp's meager store of pennies and nickels and went into the town to purchase necessary supplies. There was always a risk in entering towns, since "Illies," like "Okies," were rumored to be thieves as well as vagabonds, and were not welcomed by townspeople. The men, Paducah Bankforth and "Tribulation" Estonices, plodded to the general store, pausing for a moment to check the gasoline prices on the pumps outside before entering. Imagine their surprise when they were unable to mount the steps leading to the store, their feet each time passing through the lowermost step as through a cloud. Convinced that this was some sort of plot to prevent outsiders from shopping at the store, they attempted to scale the steps using an old board found nearby. Imagine their surprise when their feet passed through both board and steps as easily as a potato passes through the smoke of a campfire! Terrified, the men ran back to their nomadic camp and reported what they had seen, only to be accused of spending the group's hard-gotten money on illegal hooch rather than on beans and bacon. But they displayed the money and challenged others in the camp to try the same experiment. A group of a dozen men, some armed, went back to the general store, and lo! and behold! had the same eerie experience. The caravan covered its fires and decamped with all deliberate speed, but the story quickly circulated, and soon a group of State Police were ordered to investigate the phenomenon. They went to the Urkhammer Sheriff's office to confer, converse and otherwise hobnob with their brother law enforcement officials. The group's leader approached the office of this guardian of the peace and attempted to knock on the door, only to see his had pass through the thick oak as though it were merely painted steam. Their report began the gradual decline of Urkhammer. It became less substantial with every passing day, and passersby noted the absence of children playing and the growing seediness of the houses and barns. Then, on May 7, 1932, Phineas Bumf, a Huguenot immigrant farmer, passed by at dawn with his cargo of produce, and what to his wondering eyes did appear but- nothing! Where the town had stood were only abandoned fields and long-rotted fences. A cast-iron bathtub, used long ago as a watering trough for livestock, sat alone in a field of weeds, the sole relic of human presence. Urkhammer was no more. Many years later a gypsy caravan camped on the site but left abruptly. The Ataman of the group, "Baxtalo," told a Roma-friendly neighboring city councilman that the place was "saturated with the tears of the dispossessed, and with the despair of those who had never borne names."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Real Life Is Horror

If you like your strange but true a bit more true--and a lot more dark--then you should check out this blog. While still fairly new, it has nonetheless managed to collect some truly morbid, weird, and disturbing tales. Some of these you'll recall from posts on here, but some are completely new to me as well. I was enjoying perusing the many dark offerings over at Real Life Is Horror

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Undead Beliefs Among The Taino People

In researching the origins of zombies for a work in progress, I ran across an interesting assertion that this tradition doesn't come from African slaves, as is oft-cited. The premise is that beliefs among the local Taino people are, in fact, the impetus for the belief in dead persons who can be revived and controlled through sorcery. The primary source for this argument is the chronicle of Fray Ramon Pane, a Catholic priest in Columbus' retinue on the island of Hispaniola. In reading through his writings, I have found the following observations of Pane's that might illustrate this point.

"They believe that the dead appear on the roads to those who walk alone, but when many go together, they do not appear."

"They believe the dead go to a place called Coaybay on the side of an island called Soraya."

"When a person is alive, they call his spirit goeiz; when he is dead, opia*"

"There are certain men among them, called bohutis [who claim] they speak with the dead"

"How the dead man's relatives avenge themselves when they have had a reply through the sorcery of the potions. The dead man's relations assemble on a certain day and lie in wait for the said buhuitihu, give him such a thrashing that they break his legs, arms, and head, and leave him for dead. At night, they say, there come many different kinds of snakes--white, black, green, and many other colors--that lick the face and whole body of the physician whom the Indians have left for dead. This they do two or three nights in succession; and presently, they say, the bones of his body knit together again and mend. And he rises and walks rather slowly to his home. Those who meet him on the road say, "Were you not dead?" He replies that the cemies [totems or idols representing deities] came to his aid in the shape of snakes. And the dead man's relations, very angry and desperate because they thought they had avenged the death of their kinsman, again try to lay hands on him; and if they catch him a second time, they pluck out his eyes and smash his testicles, for they say no amount of beating will kill one of these physicians if they do not first tear out his testicles. "

-- Fray Ramon Pane, Hieronymite Monk in the company of Cristopher Columbus, writing about the Taino people on the island of Hispaniola, c. 1498.

* From which the modern Caribbean term for spirits, obeah, is derived. Variations (hupia, et al) can be found throughout the Caribbean, all tracing their origins to Taino culture.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Haunted Hellfire Club

In 1725, atop Montpelier hill near Dublin, a wealthy Irishman named William Connolly built a hunting lodge over a burial mound. In fact, legend has it that some of the stones from the cairn were incorporated into the building of the lodge.

It hadn't stood long before a fierce wind ripped the roof off. Locals weren't surprised, seeing the event as a sign of some sort of otherworldly vengeance. Connolly died less than four years later.

The lodge then moved into the hands of Richard Parsons, a man some believe helped bring the infamous Hellfire Club to Ireland. At Hellfire Club meetings, one chair was always left vacant for the devil, according to legends.

Local myth had it that a nearby farmer went poking around, peering into windows at the lodge to learn more about what was going on inside. He was found the next day, suddenly deaf and mute. Other legends speak of a large black cat with horns and 'eyes of the devil'.

The Hellfire Club members were well-off and learned men who chose to frolic in a more debauched atmosphere than most gentlemen's clubs of the time offered. Following a trend then of counter-culture blasphemy, the organization's head was the devil and they often considered themselves devils, but this seemed more of a joke, a way to shock genteel society. Still, legends of the rich and powerful--and their abuses--are endless, so it's no surprise that tales of mayhem and murder abound here. Many believe vengeful victims still stalk the property, demanding retribution from beyond the grave.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Déjà Vu or Past Life Experience?

An American, George Lawton, was in London on business in 1914 when he detoured to meet his old friend, Paul Bixby, in York. Lawton had never been, but was keen to see the city's famous cathedral.

As Bixby led Lawton through the winding streets, he noticed Lawton behaving aloof, distracted. "What's the matter," he asked.

Lawton couldn't quite say, beyond having a profound sense of déjà vu. Everything around him seemed so familiar, as if he had been in York before and knew it like the back of his hand. In fact, as he was explaining this to his friend, he admitted that he could probably lead way to the cathedral.

Bixby chuckled. He doubted that would be possible; the streets were too winding and confusing.

Lawton presssed on, leading the way. Bixby was at first amused but soon grew awestruck as his American friend, unfamiliar with York, was outpacing him with a surefooted stride until they reached the west entrance to the Cathedral.

Breathlessly, Bixby caught up and congratulated Lawton on his uncanny navigation of these unfamiliar streets. Lawton, however, wasn't quite listening. Again, he was distracted, peering past the cathedral to a vacant lot.

"What happened to the inn that used to be on that corner?"

"There never was one," Bixby replied. "Not that I can recall."

Later that day, in the local library, the pair poured over an old map of York. Locating the cathedral, the scanned over to the location of the vacant lot and were both astonished to discover a small notation in faded script: Site of the Golden Ox, a famous old inn destroyed in 1648.

Had George Lawton, indeed, been to York before? In another life time?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Follows

This indie flick, which has critics talking, looks to be one of the best horror films in a while. I hope it doesn't let us down. It's got a great 80s horror pastiche to decorate a chilling film that calls to mind those urban legends that haunt our childhoods.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Beast of Bald Mountain

Author Maurice Russell* had retired to a cabin in the mountains of Northern Georgia to work on his writing. His abode was somewhat remote, so a knock on the door was always a surprise.

However, this day the surprise was somewhat unsettling.

A new neighbor, who had just moved into a cabin down in the valley, introduced himself as Carl Janus. Russell was taken aback by the man's rude appearance: a wild mane of dark, untamed hair framed a ferocious countenance of piercing eyes and a powerful jaw swathed in a bushy black beard; his canines were pronounced to an unsettling degree; and the man's hands were comprised of haggard digits, terminating in claw-like nails.

In all, the man was more beast than anything--or at least it seemed to Russell.

After bidding farewell to the unkempt stranger, the writer was left with many puzzling questions. However, he needed only to wait a week to get some of the answers.

Another neighbor, Sol Pritchard came by to chat about something that had just happened.  The son of another local man, Tom Westerfield, had been walking across a field when a large dog or wolf had attacked the boy, tearing him to pieces.

It was then that the image of Carl Janus came unbidden to Russell's mind. A wolf, he though. That's what Janus looked like.

Over the next few weeks, four more men were attacked by the local predator. None of the locals could manage to track the beast. It seemed to manifest from the ether, attack, and then disappear whence it came.

One night Russell's neighbor Sol was driving his wagon home from business in town, tracing the sinuous route up Bald Mountain, when suddenly his horse reared up and to Sol's horror he spied the beast. The animal burst from roadside, launching itself in Sol's direction. Thinking quickly, the old man grabbed his pitchfork and jammed it into the body of the descending monster. The dog or wolf--or whatever it was--let out a terrible cry of pain. Without so much as a glance back, Sol drove his horse swiftly from the scene.

The next day, after telling locals of his harrowing ordeal, a group of men went out to the spot where Sol had stabbed the beast. But no animal lay dead. There was only the bloody pitchfork tossed aside like garbage.

The locals never did find the creature, but the attacks ceased. Perhaps Sol managed to inflict a mortal wound upon the animal, which limped off into the brush to die somewhere remote.

That's what happened, the locals will say.

But Maurice Russell and Sol Pritchard have a different thought on the matter. Some nights after the attack, the pair arrived at Carl Janus' cabin in the valley. They knocked on the door, but no one answered. Since the door wasn't locked, the men decided to poke their heads inside. There, laying on the bed, was the body of Carl Janus. His shirt front was stained with blood.

Gingerly, the men unbuttoned the shirt and gasped when they discovered three deep, pitchfork-like wounds in the man's abdomen.
*I believe this is the same author of a notable--if forgotten--collection of folk tales entitled "As Told To Burmese Children"

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Ghosts of Shakespeare

Dressed in white as she exits the old hotel, a lovely woman of graceful form walks down the street and is lost along the curving track of the long dead rail line....

It is now little more than a cluster of adobe buildings, including a hotel in which Billy the Kid worked as a dishwasher, but the small New Mexico community of Shakespeare was once a bustling town where people lived, loved, and died. Like many mining settlements, this one rose, bloomed, and then passed into oblivion as the years went on and the mines played out. In time, the railroads whisked away what few residents remained.

At one time there were a reported dozen ghosts remaining to occupy the old town.

Writer Ted Raynor shared in 1969 that there was a famous “lady in white” who haunted the town.  She was reported by longtime residents, who had first heard the story from their own ancestors.

It was the classic story of long lost love.  In the 1880s a woman came to the community in search of her fiance, a notorious gambler.  She discovered that he had gone south into Mexico and so she remained to wait for his return.  Soon, however news of his death reached her and she walked away from her room one day, leaving behind her only a wedding dress in her room.  No one ever saw her alive again in Shakespeare but her ghost became a regular feature.

When seen she was she was usually in white but sometimes in black causing some to wonder if she grieved at times for her lost love and unused wedding dress?

The small community is said to be home to at least a dozen specters who return from time to time to provide a glimpse of the unknown under the desert skies. There were the ghosts of three murdered African American miners who were robbed and their bodies dumped in the spot that took their name, Arroyo de los Negros.  

A gambler who, despite warning to the contrary, carried his winnings on him as he headed out into the night.  And a man who must have enjoyed meals at the local spot called the Grant House. His shadow could be seen there, looking like a man casually smoking after a delicious meal long after the last meals were ever cooked and prepared.

Other reported sightings, some that seem to have faded away, and some that remain included the ghostly canine capable of putting fear into the husky heart of a police dog and a strange ghost thought to be made of sulfur fume that would crawl up from beneath the basement of the old general store, and a gentle ghost that seemed merely to guard the resting sport on the hillside where so many were laid to rest over the years.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Two's A Dream, Three's Company

The City of Limerick, a 1300 ton vessel built in 1867 by the Royal Mail Steamship Co. and sailing out of London, had spent the past nine days being tossed about by storms in the North Atlantic. One of its passengers, S. R. Wilmot* of Bridgeport, CT, was returning home to his factory, his children, and his wife, Margaret. Or at least he hoped to.

The relentless squalls were casting a pall over the whole trip. Finally, on the 10th night, the seas calmed and Wilmot looked forward to the first decent sleep in a week in his cabin, which he shared with a man named William Tate** who slept in the bunk above his.

Wilmot lay there in the dark, listening to the gentle creaking of the ship and to Tate's sonorous breathing when suddenly the door creaked open. Wilmot opened his eyes to find a woman standing in the doorway. After a long moment of staring at her in the dim light from the hall, he was startled to realize it was his own wife.

"Margaret," he called out. "What are you doing here?!"

She said nothing, but rather seemed to float across the floor to where he lay. Margaret gently touched his face with her hand and then leaned over to kiss him.

Surely, he thought, this can't be a dream. It felt so real. Suddenly Margaret vanished from his eyes. In the confusion, the overworked gears of his brain, racing to fathom the reality of his experience, began to shut down and sleep soon overtook his exhausted mind.

In the Morning, Wilmot resigned himself to the conclusion that he had had a dream and nothing more.  And he would have been fine with that had his cabin mate not asked him who the woman was that came into their room last night.

Wilmot was shocked. How could Tate have seen his dream? It simply wasn't possible.

When he docked, Wilmot raced to his wife, eager to tell her of his strange experience. But before he could even recount the tale of his peculiarly shared vision, his wife asked him why it was that he didn't have a private room on the ship.

Startled by the curious question, he asked her to clarify.  Well, there was a man sleeping above you, she responded. "How could you know?" he asked, as a cold, queer feeling rose up from the depth of his being.

She explained how she couldn't sleep last night, having read about the storms affecting his voyage. When she did finally drift off she had a strange dream where she floated across the sea and aboard his ship where she entered his cabin and kissed him.

The date of the tale isn't clear, but it must have taken place between 1867 and the The City of Limerick's notorious vanishing (it was as the heart of a mild scandal involving the Centaur Line's newly lengthened steamers that all went down along the same route within a short time of each other) in January 1881. One source has his trip as being October 3, 1863, but the ship had yet been built in 1863. Perhaps there is confusion on which ship he actually sailed. Or perhaps this source is in error as to the date. 

*S. R. Wilmot was a businessman working in the metal industry in the latter half of the 19th Century. He had several successful patents, including improved methods for joining metal sheets and for a successful style of burner plate for oil lamps. 

**In some accounts, his name has been spelled Tait. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Son Sacrificed Mother in 'Aztec' Ritual

On the frigid morning of January 27, 1958, the savaged head of Edna Burns was found in the vestibule of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The culprit was the woman's own son, Bobby Joe Burns. The 28 year old man with a history of paranoid schizophrenia and drug abuse claimed his mother agreed to the decapitation as part of an Aztec ritual. The victim had garnered the release of her son from a state mental facility the previous year.

After leaving her head at the church, Burns crossed over into Oklahoma and spent the night sleeping in a field.

During his interrogation, the clearly disturbed Burns snacked on candy bars and drank sodas. At one point, his brother brought him some cigarettes and said, "We don't blame you for what happened."

The family, it seems, had tried to convince Edna Burns to send Bobby back to the hospital, but she seemed to think he was well enough to handle himself on the outside.

Eventually, the courts had Bobby Joe Burns recommitted to the hospital where he spent the remaining decades of his life. He died there sometime in the 1980s.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Michigan's Fire Breathing Man

A. William Underwood (1855) was a young African-American man from Paw Paw, Michigan who many believed could breathe fire.

Pyrokinesis one might call it in the parlance of parapsychology. In 1882, Dr. L. C. Woodman, a local physician, investigated the man's uncanny talent, eventually publishing an article in the Michigan Medical News.

Of his peculiar ability, Woodman had this to say:

"I have a singular phenomenon in the shape of a young man living here, that I have studied with much interest, and I am satisfied that his peculiar power demonstrates that electricity is the nerve force beyond dispute.  [Underwood's] gift is that of generating fire through the medium of his breath, assisted by manipulations with his hands. He will take anybody's handkerchief, and hold it to his mouth, and rub it vigorously with his hands while breathing on it, and immediately it bursts into flames and burns until consumed."

Despite Woodman's claim of rigorous testing, skeptics believed otherwise. Some, such as Dr. R. Thomas of De Pere, Wisconsin, suggested Underwood hid small pieces of phosphorus (which burns at temperatures as low as 86 degrees Fahrenheit) in his mouth that would ignite under the heat of his breath and rubbing hands. Given its volatile nature, phosphorus seems like a dangerously unstable thing to keep in one's mouth for the sake of a 25 cent sideshow routine. And how was it missed when Underwood's mouth was thoroughly checked during Woodman's investigation?

Was Underwood a genuine talent or a skilled hoaxer?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Psychic Dream Saved Six

In November 1852, Captain George Yount (Yountsville, CA is named for him) accompanied Henry Horn on a hunting trip in the mountains. One night, Yount had a dream about a party of nine immigrants trapped in a snow storm through the Carson Valley Pass. So certain was he that the dream was prophetic, he told his companion he was heading back to town to gather a rescue party. For three days the men searched without success, but as they approached the pass proper they discovered deep snow everywhere, as if an avalanche had occurred. Soon they spotted a 16 year old immigrant boy who told them that his party of nine was trapped in the snow not far away. The rescue party was able to save six of the nine travelers. Yount could offer no explanations for his dream. Did someone in the party send out a psychic distress call? Or did some force on high direct his thoughts to the plight of the trapped travelers?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Confessions of a Sometimes Psychic

There are many people who have on and off experiences with the paranormal.  Untapped skills and abilities that rise once and awhile to leave a lot of unanswered questions in their passing.  This is one such story.
"It was a cold day, just before my birthday in January of 1975, and the news brought a story of bodies found at an old abandoned farm.  Two women and a child under 5.  Looking out the kitchen window at the bleak frigid winter day of northern Kansas, I felt my heart grow cold as an ice cube. 
Suddenly in my mind there was such a sharp image of a farm yard, old overgrown, dirt scraped away in places.  I saw a small child wandering around weeping his heart out, lost and lonely, and cold in a thin shirt.  I knew that he would wander around in ever increasing circle looking, searching, and trying to get a response from the people who could no longer answer.  Afraid, lonely, and cold he walked without pattern, direction, or intent. All the while he was just crying, crying….
Then, in sheer desperate exhaustion, he would finally collapse to sleep. The cold night air would take his fragile and sad life from him. I felt the nip of the sharp cold air, I could hear the sobbing cries punctuated by hiccupping breaths. My lips chattered in the cold I felt.  I could see this, all in my head as if I had flipped a switch on the television and then, swiftly, changed channels to a vivid “you are there” channel.  It was vivid, harsh, and the emotional impact sliced me like a knife.  
In its wake was a bubble of grief so deep I felt intense pain. An image rose in my head of my own little boys.  I sank to the floor in the tiny kitchen and wept for the small child who had been left to die by the monster who had killed his mother and her friend. The victims had been Cheryl Young, 21, her son, Guy 3, and Diane Lovette, 19 all of Fort Madison, Iowa.
The murders, both by intent and neglect, occurred in a house on a little-used, dead-end road about 15 miles north of I-70. The site is about 15 miles northeast of WaKeeney, Kansas. The killer was Francis Donald Nemecheck.
I would have only two more such incredibly intense visions or dreams in years to come.  After that, out of sheer self-preservation, I blocked a lot of “stuff” just to not have these intensely uncomfortable experiences. Having your emotions regularly scraped to the bone is not very enjoyable.  Feeling fear and tasting death are not pleasant in any manner."

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Spot of Death

A marker denotes the spot where
Wood was killed.
On the night of July 16, 1823, William Wood, a weaver, was returning home to his small village from selling his wares in Manchester, England. On a lonely stretch of moorland road between Disley and Whaley Bridge, a gang of highwaymen attacked and killed Wood, clubbing the traveler to death and robbing him of his possessions.

So hard was Wood hit that his head left a deep impression in the soft ground. Oddly enough the hole remained so for many years, despite rains and winds that shapes and erodes the rest of the landscape. Moreover, what vegetation once grew there soon died and the spot remained lifeless thereafter.

A local legend arose from this oddity, one that reached the attention of Alfred Fryer, a famous naturalist. Fryer visited the spot in 1859 with a local man who told him how neither rain nor wind had managed to deposit any sediment over the years.

Scoffing at such ridiculous nonsense, Fryer packed dirt and stones from the road into the barren hole and retired to a nearby pub for a pint. When he and his companion returned an hour later, Fryer was shocked to discover the dirt and stones scattered about, seemingly ejected from the cavity produced by William Wood's head.

Fryer repeated his attempt several more times to the same shocking conclusion. So dumbfounded and shaken by this inexplicable occurrence, Fryer didn't even bother with an explanation. He simply walked away from the bizarre and unnerving mystery.
"Barren Ground" Incredible But True (Radio Programme)