|The following is an excerpt from my interview on Literary Kicks:
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read countless books on
unexplained mysteries -- all the supposedly documented stuff
about ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, spontaneous
human combustion, the devil’'s footprints in Devon, the Bell
Witch, and so on. But what a lot of people don’t get is that I
am fascinated in equal measure by the stories themselves and
in the mechanics of documentation. This goes to my interest
in meta-fiction, which includes devices of writing as part of
the story, like the poem and footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale
Fire, the books within books of VanderMeer’s City of Saints
and Madmen, or the complete text of Aylett’s Lint.
I sometimes find unintended humor in the way paranormal
investigators use some facts and omit others. Take the Bell
Witch legend. There is a house in Adams, Tennessee where in
1817 a man named John Bell and his family experienced
poltergeist activity. The word spread until even General
Andrew Jackson heard about it. This part is true. Jackson, his
wife, and some friends actually traveled by covered wagon to
Adams, Tennessee to spend the night in the Bell house. By all
accounts, nobody got much sleep that night. People were
pinched and slapped in the dark, covers got pulled off of
beds, weird noises were heard. Andrew Jackson is widely
quoted as saying, "I would rather fight the British than to
deal with the Bell Witch!" But what he actually said was, "I
saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would
rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they
call the Bell Witch!" I tried, in Tamper, to capture some of
the humorous aspect of paranormal documentation. To
convey the fun of it.
Having said that, I don't mean to imply that all paranormal
activity bogus. I seriously believe that magic and science are
both flowing wide-open at the same time, like two parallel
river currents that converge briefly at points. When we really
tune in to it, we see that it’s the same river, but if you look
too close, it diverges again.
I think Tamper will appeal to the pulp science fiction fans
and the Forteans - folks who know that Richard Shaver was an
actual writer for Amazing Stories Magazine in the 1940s, as
well as people who like offbeat historical fiction.
My first draft had Richard Shaver as one of the central
characters, in the manner that James Morrow includes Ben
Franklin as a character in his novel The Last Witchfinder, but
I wasn’t sure how far I should go that, so I invented Olsen
Archer, a friend and colleague of Shaver, to fill out the plot.
The photograph showed a procession of ghostly orbs floating
through an eerily lit room toward the camera.
One explanation for the glowing spheres is that dust particles,
stirred by my presence, had reflected the bright flash from the
camera, causing an optical illusion. Roger and I didn’t accept
that cop-out any more than we believed a few scraps of
aluminum foil weather balloon could account for the plethora of
witnesses to the UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. As
far as we were concerned, this was going into our newspaper,
The Astral Beat, as a ghostly manifestation.
I had taken the mysterious photographs with my 35mm camera
in the pitch-dark basement of an old, abandoned church. In the
summer of 1972, a few days after graduating from high school, I
entered the church through a side door, stepped over rat
droppings and busted pews bearing rusted screws, and crept
down the dank concrete steps.
Extinguishing my hand-held light, I aimed at nothing and clicked
the shutter a few times, each flash illuminating a desolate array
of dusty angular junk for a lingering microsecond. After
developing the film, we were amazed to see spectral orbs of
light floating in the church basement.
Roger and I were enthusiastic fans of anything involving
unexplained mysteries. This was before the actual television
shows, Unexplained Mysteries, Ghost Hunters, or In Search Of.
There were plenty of books and magazines on the subject, but
reading other people’s accounts of strange phenomena was not
enough for us. We wanted to be a part of it.
At least one psychiatrist has labeled my lifelong thirst for a
genuine supernatural experience obsessive. This obsession, or
as I prefer to call it, field of study, would eventually carry me
across the ocean and, some would say, propel me into insanity.
Others say I was insane from the get-go. Looking back, I always
did have a secret morbid side, even as a child.
Roger said he believed in the paranormal as much as I did, but
he always told me, “Whit, I know we are convinced, but we
have to construe it for our readers.”
We had developed a system of presenting supernatural
phenomena that we called the “three-point construct.” There
always had to be at least three points. The ghostly orbs floating
in the church basement is a perfect example. We looked up the
history of the church to see if we could dig up any dirt.
According to the archives at the public library, the abandoned
Gothic structure had once been Grace Lutheran Church until
the Lutherans built a bigger, more modern facility, and sold the
old church to the city. Some people wanted to tear it down
and build a parking garage for City Hall. Others voted to
preserve the church as a historical landmark due to its 19th
Century Gothic architecture, with the high pointed steeple,
stone archways, stained glass windows, and bell tower. The
Town Council formed a committee to avoid doing anything for a
while. That was two years ago.
We scanned the obituaries for people who had died under the
Lutherans’ tenure. A man named Crebnor Miles had died from
tuberculosis on August 3, 1912 at the age of forty. The wife,
son, and daughter that survived him held a memorial service at
Grace Lutheran Church, where they were members.
We looked up the church in an old book about our small town,
called A History of Hansburg, Virginia.
“This is perfect!” said Roger in a loud whisper. “Look.”
Back in 1910, the book said, a fire destroyed several buildings
and apartments in the downtown area. The Lutheran church
didn’t burn, so it provided temporary shelter to all the people
who lost their homes to the fire. Neighbors donated clothing,
blankets, pillows, and food. The assemblage soon discovered
that one man among them had tuberculosis. Fearing that his
wife and children might also be infected, they quarantined the
whole family in the basement of the church. Could that man
have been Crebnor Miles?
We had our three-point construct. If anyone questioned the
connection between Crebnor Miles and the Lutheran church,
we had (1) the obituary, officially documenting his memorial
service at said place of worship. If anyone doubted that people
had ever been (2) quarantined in the church basement, we had
a record of that. While there was no record that Crebnor Miles
had been among that group, or for that matter, that anyone
actually died in the church basement, I had (3) a photograph of
disembodied spirits floating in that very place!
“I have a good feeling about this one,” I said. “I think there’s
something to it!”
“Oh, me too,” Roger agreed. “Me, too. What we need is a
quote. We need to visit Old Baxter.”
Old Baxter lived across town at the end of a dirt road. His
mobile home, ensconced under a shady chestnut tree amid
briars, vines, and wildflowers, was actually a 1946 Airfloat travel
trailer, made of aluminum and magnesium from refurbished
World War II airplane parts.
The trailer looked like a space-age moon rover, something out
of Buck Rogers. Looking back, I would call it retro, with the
clean stylish lines of a solid-state art deco radio. A horizontal
red stripe ran along the side, under the windows and across
the door. I almost expected to see tailfins. The forward curve
on the front end of the trailer held a convex observation
window, flanked by two convex vent panels, textured with
Baxter usually needed a couple of dollars for some tonic.
“I mix it with sassafras root for my arthritis,” he explained.
We gave Baxter enough money to get two bottles of whiskey,
one for him and one for us. It was a good way to score alcohol
until we were old enough to buy it ourselves.
“What you boys want to know?” he asked.
“Do you remember something about people being put in the
basement of the Lutheran Church after the big fire?”
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” said Baxter in a vague
tone. “I was just a little feller, but I’ll never forget it.”
“In 1912?” I said.
“That’s right,” said Baxter. “I’ll never forget my daddy tellin’
me about it. ‘Course I was only, uh, not born yet, but yeah.
Human beings herded into a cold stone basement like cattle. A
terrible chapter in the history of Hansburg . . .”
|1946 Airfloat Camper Trailer
“The Rosetta Stone of
American Culture,” is
how Jean Shepherd
described the Johnson
Smith Catalog in his
introduction to the
1929 edition. It was
basically a novelty
catalog featuring the
cushions, hand buzzers,
X-ray specs, and sea
monkeys, but when I
was a kid, I gravitated
toward the mysterious
and mystical sections.
While a part of me
knew that these items
were probably not as
profound as they
seemed, I used to pore
over these pages for
hours, for weeks,
saving my money to
purchase access to
other worlds. It was like
getting lost on the
street where Harry
Potter shops for magic
wands, long before
Harry Potter existed.
|Chapter One: 1972
|The above illustration is a collage of pages from the Johnson Smith Catalog, from photos taken
by Forrest Flanders, owner of the Old Catalogs web site. Used by permission.