Why Do We Love Spooky Stories?

Spooky Graveyard with bats

“Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.” – Roald Dahl

Why, we might ask, are we so fond of stories that give us the creeps?  Wouldn’t you think we’d avoid tales that make us shiver, that bring a chill to the spine, that make us jump at the scratch of a wispy tree branch on our windowpane, as the wind howls outside like a banshee?

The truth is: we love spooky stories!

At SpookyWeb, we should be able to offer some explanation. So, here goes . . .

  1. The Cool Factor. When push comes to shove . . . or ghostly touch turns to scream . . . ghosts and goblins and other supernatural things are kind of cool. They can do some amazing things. Like walk right through walls or locked doors. Or float in the air. And that ice-cold touch on the shoulder . . . fun to hear your victim scream, right? These supernatural abilities to lurk and skulk and scare are super-powers that we might enjoy having, at least for a little while.
  2. Justice Must Be Served. At their core, spooky stories are often about some issue of a grave (pun intended) injustice done and not yet punished. Ghosts linger because they have a mission that must be finished before they can go to their eternal rest. Some terrible wrongdoing must be revealed – the perpetrator, who smugly thought he or she got away with some evil deed, pointed out with a ghostly finger of shame. Some unfinished business needs to be resolved. Ghosts need to set the record straight. They wander and pester us until they can wrap it up.
  3. Humor Rules in the End. Most of all, we like spooky stories because they make fun of our fears. Since we understand these are just stories, we stay in control. Even if we get a little spooked, we know we can close the book or press the pause button or wait till the theater lights go up before we slip out of the dark theater. Consider the progression of a scary tale. As it develops . . . as we suspect there’s a ghost in the attic or a ghoul in the graveyard or a zombie in the alley . . . we shiver. When the ghost springs forth, we scream. And then . . . we laugh. As Stephen King has pointed out, we experience a catharsis. This is a sudden release of emotional energy – a surge of fear, followed by a good laugh at ourselves for having been so afraid, to have been so gullible and foolish, or within the story, to have gotten ourselves into a ridiculously hopeless situation. Why did we decide to spend the night in a haunted house, or go down in the cellar alone, or walk from the campfire out into the dark woods – despite the fact that everyone else who has done so up to that point in the story has strangely disappeared?

In the end, humor rules, whether it is outright humor as in the funny spooky books of R.L. Stine or Bruce Coville or Raymond Bial, or more realistic scariness in dark fantasy fiction, aka the horror genre.

Spooky stories, whether written in a serious or a comic tone, make fun of our fears. And this helps us deal with those irrational feelings, our unease that there’s a monster under the bed or a witch waiting in the dark woods. We may not conquer those feelings of having “the creeps,” but we can certainly laugh at them.

As the blurb for Bruce Coville’s Goblins in the Castle says:

“What moans at midnight in Toad-in-a-Cage Castle? Toad-in-a-Cage Castle was filled with secrets—secrets such as the hidden passages that led to every room, the long stairway that wound down to the dungeon. . . . But it was the mysterious night noises that bothered William the most—the strange moans that drifted through the halls of the castle where he was raised.”

He wanted to know what caused them. Then one night he found out…

“A shivery treat for readers, who will identify with the stalwart William as he ferrets out the castle’s scary secrets and rights a long-existing wrong.” — ALA Booklist

It’s all about that special, shivery, savory treat . . . of spookiness!

[For more reading ideas, here’s a worthy list of some children’s and young-adult spooky books for kids, offered by a librarian at the New York Public Library: “Dark, Creepy, Scary, Spooky Crossover Books.”]


This is a guest post by Philip Martin, author of several books on writing and literature, including How To Write Your Best Story, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, and The Purpose of Fantasy.


The Boggart – aka Tomte or Kobold

Tomte, by John Bauer

Some of you may recall reading about a boggart in the Harry Potter books. Better still, you may have read the book The Boggart by Susan Cooper.

In British folklore, a boggart was a house spirit, a creature that lived in a family’s home and, if treated nicely, might help out with chores. They might live in the closet under the staircase (shades of young Harry Potter himself), or perhaps out in a cozy corner of the barn with the animals, and were seldom seen.

In Germany, a similar creature was called a kobold. In Sweden, the little fellow was known as a tomte.

When in a helpful mood, the boggart might pitch in to milk the cows, churn the butter, feed the cattle, harness the horses, stack the grain in the field, etc. If cranky, though, especially due to insult or disrespect from the family, it might spook the cattle, turn loose the horses, curdle the cream, or play tricks like tying the tails of two cows together.

It also liked to pull the sheets off your bed in the middle of the night.

According to one description of an Irish boggart, the small fellow was about six inches in height, a red nightcap on his head, wore a leather apron, sported blue stockings, and smoked a tiny pipe. His face was “like a withered winter apple.”

There’s a nice tale of a boggart that was especially fond of pranks, and pestered the family so much that they decided to move from their cottage. They quietly loaded all their goods on a cart. As they were leaving, hoping to sneak away unnoticed, a neighbor passed by, and asked where they were going. The family looked back at the cottage and whispered that they were moving. To their surprise, the boggart poked his head out of the butter-churn strapped to the top of the pile on the cart. “Yep, we’re moving!” he called out. When the family realized the boggart was planning to go with them, they decided it was pointless to move, and unloaded the cart and decided to stay put.

The best thing about living with a boggart: if anything was accidentally knocked over or broken, you could blame it on the boggart.

The Boggart, by Susan CooperFor a great read, try Susan Cooper’s The Boggart:

“Sometimes extremely funny, sometimes wildly scary, and always totally absorbing, this remarkable story [is] brilliantly imagined and beautifully written. An outstanding achievement, The Boggart will work its special magic on all who read it.”

“Extremely funny, sometimes scary” –  sounds like the perfect spooky book.

 

The Dress-Up Mirror – A Time-Travel Adventure (Excerpt)

The Dress-Up Mirror, by Raymond Bial, cover image

(From The Dress-Up Mirror, by Raymond Bial.)

“I know it’s a lovely mirror, Liddy,” her father chuckled. “But I can’t believe you paid two hundred dollars for it!”

“It was for a good cause,” her mother said. “The annual fundraiser at the county historical museum.”

A full-length oval mirror with scalloped edges stood in the corner of the dining room. It was held upright on a mahogany stand by brass hinges so that it could tilted forward or backward.

“It’s an antique,” Liddy Tucker went on. “I thought it would make a lovely house-warming present for ourselves.”

“We’ve already sunk a fortune into this house,” Steven moaned. “We have to be careful with our expenses.”

A delicate woman with dark brown hair and eyes, Liddy touched her fingertips to her forehead. “I know, but I couldn’t resist bidding on that mirror. You’ll laugh, but I felt drawn to it.”

Amanda eased into the room and exclaimed, “What a beautiful mirror! Where did you find it, Mom?”

“I was out for my morning walk,” Liddy Tucker explained. “It’s strange, because I don’t usually walk that way, but I passed by the historical museum, and they were having an open house and auction for all kinds of antiques. I stepped inside and saw lots of lovely items. But like your father says, money is tight for us now. So I just poked around a little, and I was about to leave when I noticed this mirror. For some reason, I just had to have it, and I could have gotten it for a song, except this old man kept bidding against me. I do believe he would have paid any price for the mirror, even a thousand dollars, but he hadn’t brought enough cash and the auctioneer wouldn’t extend credit. Luckily I had my checkbook with me. I have to say it was odd how mad that old man became when I got the mirror.”

“Mad?” Amanda asked.

Liddy nodded. “Furious. He offered to buy the mirror from me—said he’d give me double the price I’d paid. But he was so nasty and annoying that I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He made quite a scene. He got so angry his face turned purple, and he ranted that the mirror was cursed and I’d be sorry. He raised his cane, and I thought he was going to hit me. But instead he lunged at the mirror and yelled, ‘I have to shatter it once and for all!’”

Amanda and her father were speechless.

Liddy continued, “Fortunately, some men rushed forward and restrained him. They called the police, but I didn’t want to press charges—he’s just a poor, senile old man. The police escorted him from the museum. Everyone apologized, saying the man’s family had lived in Maysville for generations, although curiously no one knew him well—he apparently keeps to himself. They assured me that he’d always been mild and painfully shy. He certainly had never acted that way before.”

“That mirror is probably jinxed,” Steven joked. “If I look into it, maybe I’ll go cross-eyed. Or my hair will fall out.”

Amanda couldn’t pass up the chance to kid her father. “Don’t you mean the rest of your hair, Dad?”

“It’s so strange that the old man claimed the mirror is cursed,” Liddy chuckled. “Can you believe such a silly thing? In this day and age?”

Amanda asked, “Where did the mirror come from originally?”

“That is a mystery,” her mother said, shaking her head. “Nobody at the historical museum could tell me. Apparently, one morning someone left it by the front door with a note, saying that it was a donation to be auctioned off.”

“An anonymous donor,” Amanda wondered. “Who it could be?”

“Many generous people don’t like to draw attention to themselves,” Mrs. Tucker explained. “Like the person who always slips a gold coin in the Salvation Army bucket just before Christmas.”

“It is a fine mirror,” Steven acknowledged. “And it goes perfectly with the house, as if it belongs here. It appears to be from the same time period—turn of the century. But may I ask one question?”

“What?” Liddy asked cautiously.

“Uh, where do you intend to put this mirror?”

Although the Tuckers had just moved into the house, it already seemed quite full with books, toys, photographs, and keepsakes, besides all their furniture—not to mention the computers and large-screen television that were the special love of techno-whiz Sally, who at the moment was shoveling down another bowl of cereal in the living-room. Amanda was sure Sally had her eyes glued to an episode of Saturday morning cartoons, in between emailing or texting friends on her laptop and cell phone.

Gazing at the antique mirror, Amanda had an idea. “How about the attic?” she suggested.

“The attic?” her parents asked simultaneously.

“It would be perfect for dress-up,” Amanda explained. “I’ve already got all my old clothes and a lot of other stuff up there.

“Besides, it will be perfect for my sleepover tonight.”

_____________________

The Dress-Up Mirror (excerpt)
by Raymond Bial

copyright 2015, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, The Dress-Up Mirror.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99.
Softcover edition, $13.95

Shadow Island – A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior (Excerpt)

Shadow Island, by Raymond Bial

(From Shadow Island: A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior by Raymond Bial.)

Standing alone on the cabin porch overlooking Lake Superior, Amanda was certain that someone was staring back at her across the waves, now edged in silver.

“Who are you?” she whispered. She did not believe in the supernatural, yet there was so much in the world that was beyond explanation. And she was tangibly overtaken by a premonition regarding Shadow Island.

Easing the screen door shut behind her as she slipped out onto the porch, Roxanne whispered, “There you are, Amanda. I thought you’d wandered off somewhere.”

“Is everyone asleep?” Amanda asked.

“I think so.”

“Good.”

Without another word, Amanda crept quietly into the cabin and returned in a few moments with her telescope, which she had brought along to do some stargazing in the northern sky.

“What are you doing?” Roxanne whispered.

“There’s something I have to find out,” Amanda whispered back as she spread the tripod legs on the porch floor. She aimed the telescope across Lake Superior and bent to squint into the eyepiece.

Rising out of a jagged clump of silhouetted pine trees, the gray hulk of the Stardust Hotel filled the lens.

Roxanne squirmed. “What are you looking for?”

“I see something!” cried Amanda. “I think . . .” She peered through the telescope—at a light that pulsed as delicately as a firefly in the August night.

Roxanne gasped, “What is it?”

“A light!” Amanda whispered. “From an upstairs room in the hotel.”

Roxanne’s mouth dropped open. “It can’t be. Nobody would dare go out on that spooky island.”

Amanda became very quiet.

“No way!” Roxanne cried. “I know what you’re thinking! You want to go over there and explore the hotel.”

“Of course not,” Amanda assured her. “But . . . we could go out in a boat for a closer look. I can’t see too well from here, not with all the trees in the way. We’d have a much better vantage point on the open water. You and I were taking turns rowing with my dad this afternoon. It’ll be easy.”

“We were only in the inlet,” Roxanne said. “Remember what Mr. Willoughby said? There could be dangerous currents around the island. And the weather can turn in the blink of an eye. Besides, it’s after ten o’clock. I know you have more sense than to go anywhere near a deserted island in the middle of the night.”

Amanda debated whether she should tell her friend about the strange feeling that someone was watching her, but decided that Roxanne would only become upset.

“We’ll just be out on the water for a few minutes. And we’ll be sure to wear our life jackets.”

She added, “Aren’t you the least bit curious about the island?”

Licking her lips, Roxanne asked, “May I please have a look?”

Amanda stepped aside, and Roxanne squinted into the telescope. Peering across the water that had a bluish-purple cast in the deepening night, she wondered out loud, “Who could be out there?”

Amanda’s eyes brightened. “There isn’t anyone over there. Unless that island really is haunted.”

“Amanda, you know as well as I do that ghosts are just make-believe.”

“Down at the bait shop they said the island is inhabited by the ghost of that old lady. What was her name—Ruby Shaw?”

“They also said that nobody who’s ever gone over there has come back alive,” Roxanne reminded her.

“Mr. Willoughby was just trying to scare us. Besides, I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” Amanda scoffed.

“I don’t!”

“Well then, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Roxanne thought of the old man with his one bright violet eye and white handlebar moustache. Was he just telling a whopper to the gullible visitors from Illinois, for the benefit of the locals who knew better?

Both girls stared across the dark waters at the Stardust Hotel. Of palatial elegance, the hotel had a wraparound porch as broad as a promenade. Each of the upstairs rooms had its own balcony, and on the southwest corner rose a high turret.

Of Victorian design, the old hotel had lavish gingerbread trim. The first floor windows had long since been boarded up. But the rectangles of the upper windows were as black as velvet.

Except for the one with the faint yellow light.

_____________________

Shadow Island (excerpt)
by Raymond Bial

copyright 2013, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, Shadow Island: A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99.

“Dripping Blood Cave” – A Spooky Story (Excerpt)

Dripping Blood Cave, by Raymond Bial

(From the title story of the book Dripping Blood Cave and Other Ghostly Stories by Raymond Bial.)

“So you’re curious about Dripping Blood Cave?” Mr. Satterly asked, sighing deeply, as he eased his old bones onto the liars’ bench one evening in June.

“Well, that’s a long and sorrowful story.” . . .

“Fact is, best I can recollect, nobody has ever gone anywhere near that cave and come back alive,” Mr. Satterly went on. “Leastways, not anyone who ventured there at night.” . . .

Turning to Mr. Satterly, Hank asked, “Do you suppose it would be safe to go back there as long as we kept our distance from the cave?”

“You’d be taking a mighty big risk,” Mr. Satterly told him. “But I’ve never heard of anyone disappearing outside the cave, in the hollow that the creek flows through. Just don’t venture too close.”

“Don’t worry, Hank,” Clifford said, reaching up to clap him on his broad shoulder. “I’m a natural-born Indian fighter. I’ll protect you.”

Hank snorted. “Like on all our other adventures?”

“Why sure!” Clifford said, gazing back at him with a straight face.

Hank just shook his head again. There was no point in arguing with Clifford.

Clutching Hank’s arm, Rosie said, “I’m going with you.”

“Me too,” Mary Ethel added. “I have to look after my sweet baby Cliffie.”

“Who you calling a baby?” Clifford sputtered in disbelief. “I’m more of a hunter and scout than most of the frontiersmen who ever wandered those woods. I’m like my great-great-great Uncle Silas Philpot. It runs in the blood.”

“Maybe you ought to go home and get your coonskin cap,” Hank suggested.

Hank was joking, but Clifford nodded thoughtfully.

“You think I should?”

“Let’s just go,” Hank sighed. “Before it’s baby Cliffie’s beddy-bye time.”

“I am not a baby,” Clifford pouted, his squeaky voice going up another notch. “We’ll see who’s the trailblazer when we get back in those woods.”

As the four young people climbed into Hank’s old Chevy pickup truck with its bulgy fenders, the little guy was still seething, muttering to himself, “Call me a baby, will you? I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you.”

“You be careful,” Mr. Satterly called after them. “Careful and then some.”

Nodding soberly, Hank said, “We will.”

It had been dark in Myrtleville, but the deepest black of night pressed around the four young people as they drove out of town and into the countryside. As they crossed the rolling landscape, occasional clumps of trees were barely silhouetted in the nearly moonless sky. Twin cones of yellow light from the truck’s headlamps bored through the gloom, leading them from open farmland of pasture and cornfields into even more shadowy hills and hollows, blanketed with thick woods.

Hank knew the general location of the cave, which was good, since it was at least twelve miles from Myrtleville, beyond even the most remote roads that twisted through some of the thickest stands of woods in their part of Indiana. He had actually explored these woods, even had once glimpsed the cave Mr. Satterly had described, but from a distance—and that had been in broad daylight. He knew that the rolling hills thereabouts were laced with streams, deep ravines, and a good number of caves.

But none of the caves was as terrifying in local legend as the one to which they were now headed. Dripping Blood Cave was hidden away, far from any trail, let alone the faintest trickle of a road. And, as Hank himself had read in old issues of the Myrtleville Weekly Gazette, more than a few poor souls were reported to have mysteriously died in or near that cave.

Slowly making his way deeper and deeper into the woods, Hank wound the pickup down one narrow gravel road, then another, as stands of trees closed in closer and closer on both sides, leafy branches occasionally swishing onto the windshield. Finally, Clifford whined, “You’re lost, Hank.”

“No, I’m not,” Hank answered as he came to a stop at yet another crossroads. Just for the fun of it, he asked, “I suppose you know which way to turn, Clifford.”

The pipsqueak swallowed. “Why sure.”

“Then which way?”

Clifford glanced this way and that, then he declared with an air of authority, “Right!”

Hank promptly turned left.

“Hey, I thought you didn’t think you knew which way to turn?” Mary Ethel asked.

Hank confessed, “I wasn’t certain—until wrong-way Clifford said to turn right.”

“I’m a trail blazer!” Clifford insisted. “I go right through the woods. I don’t know anything about roads. They’re too civilized for me. You’re just lost, Hank—and trying to blame me.”

Hank slowed the truck.

“We’re almost there,” he sighed, his words frighteningly true. A chill swept through him—from the base of his spine to the back of his neck—as they eased down a skinny dirt road near the haunted ground around Dripping Blood Cave. We shouldn’t go back there, Hank kept telling himself, his hands kneading the steering wheel. There wasn’t a house for miles around in this stretch of thick woods.

Overhead, the dark trunks of hardwood trees with a canopy of leaves swished ominously. Their leaves blotted out most of the dim light of the stars and a sliver of moon.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Maybe we should just get the heck out of here,” Hank said softly. He was fairly breathless, his hands shaking a little.

“Now who’s being the baby?” Clifford sniffed. “You’re just lost and don’t want to admit it, baby.”

“But we could get swallowed up in these woods,” Hank said. “If something happens to us, they might never find us.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll lead the way. I know all about the wilderness,” Clifford crowed. But Hank noted that his friend was already trembling like a puppy left out in the cold.

Having come this far, Hank supposed that they could at least creep up to the cave, but not too close, and listen for the cries of the dancing warriors. Then skedaddle out of there.

“Okay,” he sighed, “as long as we don’t get anywhere near that cave or the creek. We’ll stay way back on the high bank overlooking the creek and cave. You hear me?”

“And he says I’m a baby,” Clifford grumbled under his breath, but he didn’t object to Hank’s plan to keep their distance from Dripping Blood Cave.

Hank turned down one more dirt road, then slowly turned the pickup into a hunter’s lane. It was faint and narrow—barely two tire faint tracks winding through the floor of the woods. Leafy branches slapped against the windshield. They bumped along as Hank eased the pickup through the dense undergrowth. They continued deeper and deeper into the woods. Then Hank swung the pickup around until they were facing the way they had just come.

“What are you doing?” Clifford demanded.

“We want to be headed in the right direction—in case we need to make a quick escape.”

“You’ll be hightailing it out of here, but not me,” Clifford snorted. “I’m not scared of—”

Dried leaves rustled just outside the pickup.

Clifford nearly choked on his words. “Lock the doors!” he squealed.

“What was that?” Rosie gasped.

Probably just a raccoon, Hank thought, but he said, “I’m not sure. Why don’t you get out and investigate, Clifford?”

“Me?” Clifford squeaked.

“Yes,” Rosie scolded. “Didn’t you say you were a man of the wilderness?”

“Uh, yeah,” Clifford muttered. “But you know me, I don’t want to show off.”

Hank cut the headlights, plunging them in utter darkness. Clifford squealed, “Eeeek!”

Then everyone went quiet, stunned by the night, which seemed to swallow the four of them in its depths.

Hank grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment. Ever so cautiously, he climbed out of the pickup.

“Uh, maybe the girls and me should stay here and wait for you, Hank,” Clifford mumbled. “That way I can, uh, protect them.”

Rosie got out of the pickup. “I’m going with Hank.”

“Me too,” Ethel said, joining her friend.

“Don’t leave me!” Clifford cried as he scrambled from the pickup and rushed over to Mary Ethel.

Drawing a deep sigh, Hank whispered to the girls, “Keep an eye on Cliffie.”

Clifford didn’t offer even a whimper of protest.

“I’m holding Cliffie’s hand,” Mary Ethel assured Hank.

“The cave is over this way,” Hank whispered as he flicked on the flashlight. “A couple hundred yards from here. But I don’t see a deer path leading to the water. Looks like even wild animals steer clear of Dripping Blood Cave.”

“How come you know so much about this place?” Rosie asked in a hushed tone as she grasped Hank’s hand tightly.

“I’ve heard about it like everybody else,” Hank whispered. “And then I came out here once—in broad daylight. But I got a creepy feeling and didn’t like being here alone, so I left before I got close enough to really see inside the cave.

“I’m curious about the place, but I’m not so sure what we’re doing right now is a good idea. If we get ambushed way back here, nobody will be able to help us.”

As they crept ahead, following the narrow cone of light, the black leaves of the underbrush fluttered about their faces. Clifford held onto Mary Ethel’s hand for dear life, and was silent, which was quite uncommon for him. As the four young people crept near the creek and cave, Hank glanced at his sidekick, who stumbled along, mouth open, in wide-eyed terror.

Wings flashed silently overhead and Hank glimpsed an owl descending on its prey, perhaps a mouse skittering through the leaves. Clifford lurched again as the faint shadow of the bird swept over them.

“When we get closer, I’ll turn off the flashlight, so the ghosts hopefully won’t see us,” Hank suggested. “Then Clifford the frontiersman can lead us the rest of the way.”

However, Clifford seemed have been struck dumb. His eyes wide open, as if in a trance, he stared ahead as Mary Ethel guided him through the woods.

As the four of them approached the creek, Hank gradually heard the music—the faint rhythmic pulse of the drums and the high, ringing voices.

Was it a chant? A song? The mingled voices were as mournful, wild, and dangerous sounding as howling wolves. Hank did not understand a single word, yet he sensed both grief and outrage in the tone.

Switching off the flashlight, he led his three friends toward the faint, wild singing. They crept up to the high bank and hid behind the rocks, bushes, and pale trunk of a sycamore tree that overhung the creek.

Hank kept everyone well back from the ledge, where the bank dropped sharply, falling about ten feet to the floor of the steep hollow through which the creek ran, with a branch of it coming right out from the cave.

Leaning forward through the thick brush, Hank glimpsed a band of Indians—men, women, and children—singing and dancing around a campfire on a sandbar in the middle of the creek waters below, just outside the yawning black mouth of Dripping Blood Cave to their far left.

Vividly painted, wielding war clubs, the men shuffled and stomped, tracing a circle around the fire. Occasionally, they shook their war clubs and raised their heads upward into the night sky. Orange light from the campfire flickered on their faces and reflected in the ripples of the water flowing on either side of the sandbar. Gathered around the dancing men, at the perimeter of the light, the women and children joined them in song.

Their bodies glistening in the light of the campfires, the Indians appeared tangible, yet hazy, like the bluish smoke rising around them. They seemed to have shape and form, but somehow not the substance and weight of living bodies.

“They’re ghosts,” Mary Ethel whispered, short of breath.

_____________________

“Dripping Blood Cave” (excerpt)
A Story by Raymond Bial
from the book, Dripping Blood Cave and Other Ghostly Stories

copyright 2010, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, Dripping Blood Cave and Other Ghostly Stories.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99. Includes the full text of “Dripping Blood Cave” and 7 more humorous ghost stories.

“The Fresh Grave” – A Spooky Story

The Fresh Grave, ghost story by Raymond Bial

(Title story from the book The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories by Raymond Bial.)

Out on the side porch, Hank Cantrell was easing back and forth on the wooden swing in the black of a moonless June night.

As they did most every evening, frogs chorused down in the marsh and crickets fiddled in the high grass. The hills and woods around Hank’s farm made the hours after sundown absolutely pitch-black, as if the very light had been swallowed up by the hollows. So he was startled when across the pasture there flowed a white essence, spiraling like a whirlpool. At first he thought it was just a wisp of fog easing up from the creek bottom.

A strapping boy with blue eyes and straw-colored hair, Hank stood up to see better, his hand trembling on the cool metal of the pump handle. The approaching white fog might have been a trace of mist, but instead of drifting randomly, it flowed directly toward him. At age fifteen, Hank knew every rock, fencepost, and tuft of grass in that pasture, from doing chores and taking care of the livestock, and the unusual appearance of the mist traveling toward him disturbed him considerably.

He started to retreat into the house where his parents and brothers and sisters were reading and playing board games in the parlor, but he was so curious, he couldn’t take his eyes off the strange mist advancing over their land. Gradually, as he watched, it assumed the shape of a person and he stepped back in shock. Then as it whisked across the strawberry patch right next to the house, the face of a woman emerged from the fog—old and creviced, with keen eyes reflecting light like an animal caught in the headlights of a car. Hank couldn’t determine the source of that light, not for the life of him, because it was so dark that the stars seemed to be drowning deep within the sky.

Just as he was about to flee into the house, a voice called to him, “Hank.” The sound wafted across the distance that separated them, reaching him in a whisper. “Hank Cantrell, I need you.”

The boy’s hands shook. He was so frightened that his entire body felt on the verge of breaking apart.

“Come here, Hank,” the old lady called from the mist. “I need you.”

Hank glanced over his shoulder to the safety of his family. He could run inside, but he kept telling himself, “I know this land. I should be safe on my own farm.” Yet as he stepped off the side porch and approached the old lady, he could hardly feel his feet beneath himself. “What am I do­ing?” he repeatedly asked himself, as if he had lost control over his own actions.

But when he was just yards away from the figure, it spoke again, “It’s me, Hank. Hattie Rutledge.”

Instantly he recognized old Hattie and, much relieved, said, “You gave me a start, Mrs. Rutledge. I thought—well, uh, never mind. Say, what brings you out tonight?”

Wisps of gray hair floating about her face, she said, “I want to talk with you.”

Hank wondered why she was dressed entirely in white, the fabric so delicate that it floated as light as air. Her pale blue eyes had a wild, almost transparent look to them. He glanced back to the porch window from which a comforting light shone and said, “Why sure, Hattie. Mom and Dad will be glad to see you.”

“No, out here,” she said. “No one must know but you, Hank.”

“How come?” Hank wasn’t in the habit of keeping secrets from anyone, least of all from his parents.

“No one but you, Hank!” she cried, her eyes flaring with an eerie blue light.

Goosebumps rose on Hank’s arms, and he shivered like he was freezing from the inside.

Now, Hattie Rutledge was just about the oldest person in Varnell County, loved and trusted by all, and she knew more about local history than anybody. For many years—as long as Hank had been alive and then some—she had made a study of it, writing articles for the Myrtleville Weekly Gazette and even a book which had been published by the Varnell County Historical Society.

Hank was well-acquainted with Hattie and he knew that she could be trusted completely. So he followed her past the strawberry patch and the chicken coop. Just under the basketball hoop on the side of the barn, she paused and told him, “I’ve got a little job that needs doing, and I’m counting on your help.”

“Why is she asking me?” Hank wondered to himself.

Seemingly able to penetrate his thoughts, she explained, “You’ve always been a boy that folks can count on, Hank. You’ve always been a hard worker.” Aware that he had that reputation, Hank swelled a little with pride, yet for the sake of humility he maintained a sober expression on his face. Hattie went on, “You’ve always been able to do a good day’s work. Well, tonight I’ve got a good night’s work for you, if you’re willing.”

Hank shuffled his feet. “Well, I don’t know, Hattie. It’s getting awful late.”

Hattie pleaded, “It’s for a good cause, Hank. And it can’t be done without your help.”

Anxiously, Hank rubbed his palms on his jean legs. He was scared all right, but offered, “I’m willing to help ’long as it’s for a good reason. I know you wouldn’t steer me wrong, Hattie.”

“You’ve got to promise never to tell a living soul!”

Although he didn’t know why she was asking him to keep a secret, Hank swallowed and told her, “I promise.”

“Come on!” Hattie urged, suddenly agitated.

“Where are we going?” Hank thought to ask.

“To Spring Hill Cemetery.”

Hank stopped cold. “Just what are we going to do there?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” she said, taking his arm. Her touch felt light and cool to him. “We’ve got to get there be­fore it’s too late.”

They walked along through the dark, down a tractor path that led to a bridge over the creek. There were scattered woods on either side of them, which further obscured the faint light of the stars.

Glancing over her shoulder, as if to make sure no one was eavesdropping on them, Hattie explained, “Lately there have been grave robbers at work in Varnell County.”

Hank nodded. He had heard the stories.

“More’n likely they’re plain vandals. God knows there’s nothing of value to rob hereabouts, especially in graves. People die as they lived—dirt poor. But once they’re dead, poor folks have got as much right as anybody to rest in peace. Trouble is those grave robbers are hard to catch. Sheriff Rollins has laid out there more’n one night already trying to catch them, but he usually falls asleep. And those violators are crafty. Likely they’ve spotted him on those nights and haven’t dug up any graves or done any other damage. But old Roily can’t spend every night camped out in the graveyard. So I’ve got a plan to stop them good, and permanent.”

Hank swallowed. “Permanent?”

“Yes, for forever and a day. You said you were willing, didn’t you?”

“Well, I. . . uh . . .”

“Then let’s hurry!”

“What about my parents? Shouldn’t I have told them?” Hank asked, glancing back to his home, the lights of which were fading in the distance.

“Don’t worry about them,” Hattie said. “They’ll think you’ve gone to bed and won’t miss you.”

Hank wondered how she could be so certain that his parents would not discover his absence. He wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to get mixed up with these violators of the dead, especially as Hattie began to explain her scheme to him, but he had already promised her. It was a little over three miles to Spring Hill Cemetery, that is, if you took a shortcut through the woods and pasture. The old graveyard covered most of a field at the south edge of Myrtleville. Like so many teeth, the tombstones littered the slope at angles, interrupted by clumps of daylilies and oak trees.

“Are you sure this will work?” Hank asked, short of breath, wondering why Hattie wasn’t in the least winded by their rapid pace.

“Dead certain.”

“Don’t say that.”

“There’s a fresh grave on the slope just waiting. For you, Hank.”

For me, Hank thought, with a ringing in his ears, because the plan called for him to be buried alive.

Hattie removed a small bag of flour from the pocket of her white dress and used it to powder Hank from head to foot. Then, indicating the open coffin at the bottom of the rectangular hole, she said, “Climb in.”

He hesitated. “I’m not so sure I can do this, Hattie. What if you can’t get me out in time? There’s only so much air in that coffin and—”

“Have faith, boy!”

“But how will you get me out?” Hank asked.

“I won’t,” Hattie said. “It’s the grave robbers who will dig you up.”

“What if they don’t come?”

“Then I’ll dig you out myself.”

Hank wasn’t so sure. Hattie might be spry, but she was too old to be handling a shovel for any length of time.

“How long will I be buried?” he asked.

“Until they come for you.”

“But how long before my air runs out?”

“You’ll have a couple of hours or so,” she said.

Since he had promised, and since Hattie was a person to be trusted, Hank climbed down into the cold hole and lay down in the pine box. For a second, he caught a glimpse of the wide-open sky, flecked with stars. Never had he seen a more inviting sight. Then the wooden lid slammed down upon him.

Instantly he was trapped in absolute black.

In panic he tried to push open the coffin, then he beat upon the walls, but shovelsful of damp earth were already thudding down upon the lid, much more quickly than he imagined Hattie could possibly work with a spade. As the earth accumulated over him, the sound gradually softened, coming from a greater and greater distance, and then all was silent.

Hank tore at his hair. He beat and kicked at the coffin walls, and scraped the inner surface until his fingers bled, all the time reproaching himself, “Why? Why? Why did I agree to this crazy plan—to be buried alive! Hattie must have gone mad!” His thoughts swirled in confusion. Then he fainted outright.

It could have been minutes or days before he gradually surfaced to consciousness. His mind was lost in a blur of visions and colorful fragments of dreams, and he was certain that he was asleep at home in bed. Grinning to himself, he sat up—only to knock his head against the lid of the coffin.

“Why?” he demanded of himself. “How could I let myself be buried alive?” Again he vented his terror on the walls, until gradually, in that absolute black, he lapsed into a strange calm.

He wondered if he would have enough air in the narrow box, if he would ever stand on the earth again, if he would ever again behold the sweet light of day. After a while, he simply lay there thinking of nothing, until—

“What was that?” he asked himself, the sound echoing back to him in his confinement.

“It must be my imagination,” he told himself. Then he heard it again—a muffled thudding and then a scraping of metal on the wooden lid directly over him. Faintly, he heard laughter, drunken snorts, and a rough voice insisting, “I get to crack this one open, Junior!”

“No, you don’t!” another man’s voice answered.

“But you got to bust up the last one!”

“Well, you done wrecked two in a row before that!”

“I sure as heck didn’t!”

“Okay, we’ll all open up it together.”

Hank collected himself, lying stiff and wide-eyed as Hattie had instructed. The creaking of the lid as it slowly opened sounded to him like the entire sky wrenching itself apart. In the distance there were brilliant, sudden flashes of heat lightning, but not a sound of thunder, just that an­guished creaking sound as the lid was pulled back.

Strangely, Hank felt that he was high up at a great distance, looking downward, and that the sky far below him was nothing but a vast ocean into which he was about to plummet. The wind flashed around him as he slowly sat up, tilting forward, into an immense void. If he kept falling into the deep sky, he would end up orbiting the earth, he thought, always looking downward, without a body or a soul, just himself and the universe around him.

Out of the corners of his unblinking eyes, he saw the utter terror in the faces of three men—the Leach brothers! Usually Orville, Junior, and Ferris Leach hung out at the Sinclair station on the way to Boggsville. They had been a few years ahead of Hank in high school, before they’d dropped out, but they didn’t recognize him now, not with the flour dusted all over him.

“It’s alive!” Junior gasped.

“No it ain’t, it’s dead!” Ferris answered.

“Then how come it’s movin’?” Orville asked.

“It’s a ghost!”

As Hattie had instructed him, Hank raised his hands as if to strangle them and demanded in a deep, formal voice, “Why do you disturb my rest? Can I not rest in peace?”

Their faces twisted, the three guys were already stum­bling backward. Junior cried, “We didn’t mean nothin’. We was just havin’ us some fun. We won’t do it again. Not ever again.”

Hank sprang out of the coffin and screamed, “If you ever do, I’ll bury you alongside of me for all eternity! Do you hear me?” He made like he was going after them, and they ran as if they’d seen death itself—which, in their minds, they most certainly had.

Getting the shakes again, as he recalled his recent burial, Hank scrambled out of the cold hole. From behind a spruce tree, Hattie appeared. She cackled, “It worked! I’d say we cured them once and for all!”

“Do you suppose so?” Hank asked, unable to control his nerves which crackled like electricity through him.

“Yes,” she said, looking at him curiously. “I expect that the only thing worse than being dead and buried is to be buried alive. Wouldn’t you think so?”

Knowing the feeling all too well, Hank nodded.

“Well, thank you,” Hattie said. “I know it was hard for you to lay down there, Hank, probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your young life. But now you know something—more than most folks, old and young alike, and here you’re only fifteen.”

Hank asked, “You want me to cover up the coffin?”

She looked strangely at him, her blue eyes going soft. Then shaking her head, she said, “No, honey, you’ve done more’n enough work for one night. What’s left to be done, I’ll have to do myself.”

Hank glanced briefly down at the black rectangular hole, then turned back to her, but Hattie Rutledge had vanished.

That night he walked home, neither scared nor happy, just filled with wonder over the amazing complexity of the universe.

At the hand pump on the back porch, he washed off the flour, at least most of it. Then he quietly entered the house and slipped into his bed, sleeping so long and deep that his mom had to call to him several times before he awoke the next morning.

“Hank, I’m not yelling up these stairs again,” she said. “You’ve got chores to do and here it is practically six o’clock in the morning!”

He bolted upright, dreaming that he was still buried alive, and was thankful to see the light angling in through the window. At first he thought the whole thing had been a dream—until he noticed the flour which remained in the folds of his shirt and jeans. He dressed in clean clothes and went downstairs where his mom asked him, “Are you going to the funeral today?”

“Funeral?”

“Yes. You mean you haven’t heard? Old Hattie Rutledge died the day before yesterday.”

“Day before yesterday? But I just saw her. I . . .”

His mom looked at Hank a moment, then said, “It couldn’t have been her, Hank. She’s been dead for nearly two days. Now eat your eggs before they get cold.”

Hank shook, suddenly chilled to his very bones at the thought that Hattie really had been a ghost.

“Are you all right, Hank?” his father asked, his arms planted firmly on the table.

“Sure,” Hank muttered in the general direction of his plate.

“He just doesn’t understand much about death,” his mom said gently. “He being so young.”

But Hank knew something about death, which thereafter gave him a better appreciation of every day of his life. That afternoon, he stood at Hattie’s graveside, and found himself looking down into the very same hole he had occupied the previous night.

The Leach brothers were also in attendance. They were shaking like they had a bad case of the chills, and, though Sheriff Rollins could never figure out why, there never was another grave disturbed in all of Varnell County.

_____________________

“The Fresh Grave”
A Story by Raymond Bial
from the book, The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories

copyright 1997, 2014, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99. Includes “The Fresh Grave” and 8 more humorous ghost stories.

The Giant Centipede – A Japanese Tale

Here’s a Japanese folk tale about a duel between a giant centipede and a warrior. This story has everything you’d want in a spooky tale: dancing carp, a huge marauding insect, human saliva, and a title earned: “Mr. Big Bag of Rice.”

It’s from a collection of tales published 1908 by Yei Theodora Ozaki, the daughter of a Japanese father and Western mother. Ozaki writes in her intro to Japanese Fairy Tales: “These stories are not literal translations, and though the Japanese story and all quaint Japanese expressions have been faithfully preserved, they have been told more with the view to interest young readers of the West than the technical student of folk-lore. (. . .) I have followed my fancy in adding such touches of local color or description . . . and in one or two instances I have gathered in an incident from another version.”

So . . . this event may not have happened exactly as described!

Now, on to the tale:

MY LORD BAG OF RICE

Long, long ago there lived in Japan a brave warrior known to all as Tawara Toda, or “My Lord Bag of Rice.” His true name was Fujiwara Hidesato, and there is a very interesting story of how he came to change his name.

One day he sallied forth in search of adventures. . . . So he buckled on his two swords, took his huge bow, much taller than himself, in his hand, and slinging his quiver on his back started out. He had not gone far when he came to the bridge of Seta-no-Karashi spanning one end of the beautiful Lake Biwa.

No sooner had he set foot on the bridge than he saw lying right across his path a huge serpent-dragon. Its body was so big that it looked like the trunk of a large pine tree and it took up the whole width of the bridge. One of its huge claws rested on the parapet of one side of the bridge, while its tail lay right against the other. The monster seemed to be asleep, and as it breathed, fire and smoke came out of its nostrils.

dragon graphic

At first Hidesato could not help feeling alarmed at the sight of this horrible reptile lying in his path . . . [but] putting aside all fear went forward dauntlessly. Crunch, crunch! he stepped now on the dragon’s body, now between its coils, and without even one glance backward he went on his way.

He had only gone a few steps when he heard some one calling him from behind. On turning back he was much surprised to see that the monster dragon had entirely disappeared and in its place was a strange-looking man, who was bowing most ceremoniously to the ground. His red hair streamed over his shoulders and was surmounted by a crown in the shape of a dragon’s head, and his sea-green dress was patterned with shells.

Hidesato knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and he wondered much at the strange occurrence. Where had the dragon gone in such a short space of time? Or had it transformed itself into this man . . . ?

“Was it you that called me just now?”

“Yes, it was I,” answered the man: “I have an earnest request to make to you. Do you think you can grant it to me?”

“If it is in my power to do so I will,” answered Hidesato, “but first tell me who you are.”

“I am the Dragon King of the Lake, and my home is in these waters just under this bridge.”

“And what is it you have to ask of me?” said Hidesato.

“I want you to kill my mortal enemy the centipede, who lives on the mountain beyond,” and the Dragon King pointed to a high peak on the opposite shore of the lake.

“I have lived now for many years in this lake and I have a large family of children and grand-children. For some time past we have lived in terror, for a monster centipede has discovered our home, and night after night it comes and carries off one of my family. I am powerless to save them. If it goes on much longer like this, not only shall I lose all my children, but I myself must fall a victim to the monster.

“I am, therefore, very unhappy, and in my extremity I determined to ask the help of a human being. For many days with this intention I have waited on the bridge in the shape of the horrible serpent-dragon that you saw, in the hope that some strong brave man would come along. But all who came this way, as soon as they saw me were terrified and ran away as fast as they could. You are the first man I have found able to look at me without fear, so I knew at once that you were a man of great courage. . . . Will you not help me and kill my enemy the centipede?”

Hidesato felt very sorry for the Dragon King on hearing his story, and readily promised to do what he could to help him. The warrior asked where the centipede lived, so that he might attack the creature at once. The Dragon King replied that its home was on the mountain Mikami, but that as it came every night at a certain hour to the palace of the lake, it would be better to wait till then. So Hidesato was conducted to the palace of the Dragon King, under the bridge.

Strange to say, as he followed his host downwards the waters parted to let them pass, and his clothes did not even feel damp as he passed through the flood.

Never had Hidesato seen anything so beautiful as this palace built of white marble beneath the lake. He had often heard of the Sea King’s palace at the bottom of the sea, where all the servants and retainers were salt-water fishes, but here was a magnificent building in the heart of Lake Biwa. The dainty goldfishes, red carp, and silvery trout, waited upon the Dragon King and his guest.

Hidesato was astonished at the feast that was spread for him. The dishes were crystallized lotus leaves and flowers, and the chopsticks were of the rarest ebony. As soon as they sat down, the sliding doors opened and ten lovely goldfish dancers came out, and behind them followed ten red-carp musicians with the koto and the samisen. Thus the hours flew by till midnight, and the beautiful music and dancing had banished all thoughts of the centipede.

The Dragon King was about to pledge the warrior in a fresh cup of wine when the palace was suddenly shaken by a tramp, tramp! as if a mighty army had begun to march not far away.

Hidesato and his host both rose to their feet and rushed to the balcony, and the warrior saw on the opposite mountain two great balls of glowing fire coming nearer and nearer. The Dragon King stood by the warrior’s side trembling with fear.

“The centipede! The centipede! Those two balls of fire are its eyes. It is coming for its prey! Now is the time to kill it.”

Hidesato looked . . . and, in the dim light of the starlit evening, behind the two balls of fire he saw the long body of an enormous centipede winding round the mountains, and the light in its hundred feet glowed like so many distant lanterns moving slowly towards the shore.

Hidesato showed not the least sign of fear. He tried to calm the Dragon King.

“Don’t be afraid. I shall surely kill the centipede. Just bring me my bow and arrows.”

The Dragon King did as he was bid, and the warrior noticed that he had only three arrows left in his quiver. He took the bow, and fitting an arrow to the notch, took careful aim and let fly.

The arrow hit the centipede right in the middle of its head, but instead of penetrating, it glanced off harmless and fell to the ground.

Nothing daunted, Hidesato took another arrow, fitted it to the notch of the bow and let fly. Again the arrow hit the mark, it struck the centipede right in the middle of its head, only to glance off and fall to the ground. The centipede was invulnerable to weapons!

When the Dragon King saw that even this brave warrior’s arrows were powerless to kill the centipede, he lost heart and began to tremble with fear.

The warrior saw that he had now only one arrow left in his quiver, and if this one failed he could not kill the centipede. He looked across the waters. The huge reptile had wound its horrid body seven times round the mountain and would soon come down to the lake. Nearer and nearer gleamed fireballs of eyes, and the light of its hundred feet began to throw reflections in the still waters of the lake.

Then suddenly the warrior remembered that he had heard that human saliva was deadly to centipedes. But this was no ordinary centipede. This was so monstrous that even to think of such a creature made one creep with horror.

[But] Hidesato determined to try his last chance. So taking his last arrow and first putting the end of it in his mouth, he fitted the notch to his bow, took careful aim once more and let fly.

This time the arrow again hit the centipede right in the middle of its head, but instead of glancing off harmlessly as before, it struck home to the creature’s brain. Then with a convulsive shudder the serpentine body stopped moving, and the fiery light of its great eyes and hundred feet darkened to a dull glare like the sunset of a stormy day, and then went out in blackness.

A great darkness now overspread the heavens, the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, and the wind roared in fury, and it seemed as if the world were coming to an end. The Dragon King and his children and retainers all crouched in different parts of the palace, frightened to death, for the building was shaken to its foundation.

At last the dreadful night was over. Day dawned beautiful and clear. The centipede was gone from the mountain.

Then Hidesato called to the Dragon King to come out with him on the balcony. . . . Hidesato pointed to the lake. There lay the body of the dead centipede floating on the water, which was dyed red with its blood.

The gratitude of the Dragon King knew no bounds. The whole family came and bowed down before the warrior, calling him their preserver and the bravest warrior in all Japan.

Another feast was prepared, more sumptuous than the first. All kinds of fish, prepared in every imaginable way, raw, stewed, boiled and roasted, served on coral trays and crystal dishes, were put before him, and the wine was the best that Hidesato had ever tasted in his life. . . .

His host tried to persuade the warrior to stay a few days, but Hidesato insisted on going home. . . . The Dragon King and his family were all very sorry to have him leave so soon, but since he would go they begged him to accept a few small presents (so they said) in token of their gratitude to him for delivering them forever from their horrible enemy the centipede.

As the warrior stood in the porch taking leave, a train of fish was suddenly transformed into a retinue of men, all wearing ceremonial robes and dragon’s crowns on their heads. . . . The presents that they carried were as follows:

First, a large bronze bell.

Second, a bag of rice.

Third, a roll of silk.

Fourth, a cooking pot.

Fifth, a bell.

Hidesato did not want to accept all these presents, but as the Dragon King insisted, he could not well refuse.

The Dragon King himself accompanied the warrior as far as the bridge, and then took leave of him with many bows and good wishes, leaving the procession of servants to accompany Hidesato to his house with the presents. . . .

The presents which he had received from the grateful Dragon King were found to be of magic power. The bell only was ordinary, and as Hidesato had no use for it he presented it to the temple near by, where it was hung up, to boom out the hour of day over the surrounding neighborhood.

The single bag of rice, however much was taken from it day after day for the meals of the knight and his whole family, never grew less—the supply in the bag was inexhaustible.

The roll of silk, too, never grew shorter, though time after time long pieces were cut off to make the warrior a new suit of clothes to go to Court in at the New Year.

The cooking pot was wonderful, too. No matter what was put into it, it cooked deliciously whatever was wanted without any firing—truly a very economical saucepan.

The fame of Hidesato’s fortune spread far and wide, and as there was no need for him to spend money on rice or silk or firing, he became very rich and prosperous, and was henceforth known as My Lord Bag of Rice.

The Flying Canoe – A French Canadian Tale

The Flying Canoe

While we wait for the flying cars we were promised, here’s a 19th-century French Canadian story of a flying canoe.

The story begins on New Year’s Eve. A group of voyageurs (or loggers in some versions) off at an isolated camp start to pine for their sweethearts, a 100 leagues (300 miles) away. So the lonely men decide to run the “chasse-galerie.”

What is the chasse-galerie? The author of an early published version of the story claimed to have met many an old voyageur who  claimed to have “seen bark canoes traveling in mid-air, full of men paddling and singing away, under the protection of Beelzebub, on their way from [their far-flung] camps . . . to pay a flying visit to their sweethearts at home.”

The Flying Canoe

Running the “chasse-galerie” meant making a pact with the Devil so that the canoe would fly through the air to their destination. However, the rules of devilish airborne travel apply: travelers must not mention God’s name or touch the cross of any church steeple as they whisk by in the flying canoe. If either of these rules are broken during the voyage, then the Devil will have their souls.

But it was apparently worth that risk for those voyageurs to be able to kiss their sweethearts on New Year’s Eve.

To be safe, the men promise not to touch another drop of rum that night, to keep their heads clear. [We sense at this point in the story that something just might go awry!]

The crew take their places in the canoe, which rises off the ground, and they start to paddle through the air.

We felt the canoe rising in the air to a height of five or six hundred feet. I felt as light as a feather, and at Baptiste’s command, we commenced paddling like sorcerers that we were. At the first stroke of the paddle, the canoe shot out like an arrow.

We went faster than the wind, and during the first fifteen minutes we sailed over the forest, without perceiving anything else than the dark heads of the great pines.

It was a beautiful night, and a full moon lighted up the sky like the midday sun. It was terribly cold though, and our mustaches were fairly frozen, while our bodies were all in a perspiration. We were paddling like demons at work in the lower regions.

We soon perceived a bright, glistening belt of clear ice, that shone like a mirror. That was the Gatineau River; and then the lights in the farm-houses, which were mostly lit up on New Year’s eve. We began passing the tin-covered steeples as quickly as telegraph-poles fly past in a railway-train, and the spires shone in the air like the bayonets of the soldiers drilling on the Champ de Mars, in Montreal.

On we went . . . passing over forests, rivers, towns, villages, and leaving behind us a trail of sparks.

[from a version of the Flying Canoe story published in English in August 1892 in the Century Magazine of New York]

The bewitched canoe eventually touches down near a house where New Year’s Eve festivities are in full swing. No one wonders at the men’s sudden arrival. They are welcomed and soon are merrily dancing the four-handed reel.

But it turns late. The men must leave if they are to get back to camp in time for work. As they fly homeward through the moonless night, their leader Baptiste steers the canoe on an unsteady course. It seems that he had been visiting the punch bowl a bit too often at the dance party.

Passing over Montreal they just miss running into a church steeple, and soon after the canoe runs into a snowdrift on a mountainside.

At this point the drunken Baptiste begins swearing and taking the Lord’s name in vain. Terrified the Devil will take their souls, the men bind and gag their friend and elect another to navigate.

But Baptiste breaks his bonds and begins swearing again. The crew become terrified at the prospect of losing their souls, and they eventually steer the bewitched canoe right into a tall pine.

The men spill out and are knocked unconscious (or pass out). The ending of the story changes from version to version. Sometimes the men are condemned to fly the canoe through hell and appear in the sky every New Year’s Eve, a version of the bewitched Wild Hunt.

All I can say, my friends, is that it is not so amusing as some people might think, to travel in mid-air, in the dead of winter, under the guidance of Beelzebub, running la chasse-galeriey.

As in many a spooky tale, hindsight is 20/20.

However, the narrator’s main regret, he admits, is that he had to leave the party early “without saying good-bye . . . not even to Liza Guimbette, whom I had invited for the next cotillion. I always thought that she bore me a grudge for that” . . .

. . . for when the poor fellow came back to visit her the next summer, she was married to another man.

The Will-o’-the-Wisp

will-o-the-wisp

The Will-o’-the-Wisp is “the tricksy twilight spirit who shows his deceptive torch or lantern on the dusky edges of the marsh” to lure the unwary into the mucky bog.

Will’s phantom light is not the hollowed-out turnip of Jack (O’ Lantern), but was said to be a wisp, a twist of straw used as a brief torch. The phenomenon is also know as the ignis fatuus, the fooling fire, and sometimes is suspected to be just a bit of marsh gas (which begs the questions of how it came to be set on fire, and why the tales often have the lights on the move, following nervous travelers for miles).

The luring light was typically bent on mischief. But, like many spooky encounters, it could be placated with a coin or pleasant word (or sent fleeing with the right counter-charm, usually a religious admonition). It’s simple: do the wrong thing and woe befalls you. Do the right thing and all is well.

The reported spottings, gleefully noted in the popular press, came equally from drunks stumbling home and observant vicars out late on their rounds.

will-o-the-wisp

In the first chapter of Dracula, a flickering will-o’the-wisp appears to help guide the strange, silent driver of the carriage that carries the poor protagonist, Jonathan Harker, on a wild ride deep into the inner reaches of the Transylvanian Carpathians to the foot of eerie ruined castle of the long-toothed Count:

Soon we were hemmed in with trees . . . and again great frowning rocks guarded us boldly on either side. Though we were in shelter, we could hear the rising wind, for it moaned and whistled through the rocks. . . . It grew colder and colder still, and fine, powdery snow began to fall. . . . The keen wind still carried the howling of the dogs, though this grew fainter as we went on our way. The baying of the wolves sounded nearer and nearer, as though they were closing round on us from every side. I grew dreadfully afraid, and the horses shared my fear. The driver, however, was not in the least disturbed; he kept turning his head to left and right, but I could not see anything through the darkness.

Suddenly, away on our left, I saw a faint flickering blue flame. The driver saw it at the same moment; he at once checked the horses, and, jumping to the ground, disappeared into the darkness. I did not know what to do . . . but while I wondered the driver suddenly appeared again, and without a word took his seat, and we resumed our journey.

I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming of the incident, for it seemed to be repeated endlessly, and now looking back, it is like a sort of awful nightmare. Once the flame appeared so near the road, that even in the darkness around us I could watch the driver’s motions.

He went rapidly to where the blue flame arose—it must have been very faint, for it did not seem to illumine the place around it at all—and gathering a few stones, formed them into some device. Once there appeared a strange optical effect: when he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary. . . . Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle.

At last there came a time when the driver went further afield than he had yet gone, and during his absence, the horses began to tremble worse than ever and to snort and scream with fright. I could not see any cause for it, for the howling of the wolves had ceased altogether; but just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. . . .

All at once the wolves began to howl as though the moonlight had had some peculiar effect on them. The horses jumped about and reared, and looked helplessly round with eyes that rolled in a way painful to see; but the living ring of terror encompassed them on every side. . . . I called to the coachman to come, for it seemed to me that our only chance was to try to break out through the ring and to aid his approach. I shouted and beat the side of the calèche [carriage], hoping by the noise to scare the wolves from that side, so as to give him a chance of reaching the trap.

How he came there, I know not, but I heard his voice raised in a tone of imperious command, and looking towards the sound, saw him stand in the roadway. As he swept his long arms, as though brushing aside some impalpable obstacle, the wolves fell back and back further still. Just then a heavy cloud passed across the face of the moon, so that we were again in darkness.

When I could see again the driver was climbing into the calèche, and the wolves had disappeared. . . . The time seemed interminable as we swept on our way, now in almost complete darkness, for the rolling clouds obscured the moon. We kept on ascending. . . . Suddenly, I became conscious of the fact that the driver was in the act of pulling up the horses in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.

Proving once again that it pays to check the Yelp reviews before booking a room. And the Will-‘o-the-Wisp is sort of an early version of the errant GPS mapping program that tells you to take a right turn into the swamp.

Big Pumpkins and a Quick History of Halloween

I always thought the scariest pumpkins were the ones left out too long after Halloween was over. They would shrivel and sag till they started to look like something that maybe had come from the Underworld.

But why pumpkins for Halloween?

"Cthulu" Jack-o-lantern, by Joe Hall (Creative Commons).
“Cthulu” Jack-o-lantern, by Joe Hall (Creative Commons).

First, a little background on Halloween. It’s a celebration of the dead. The roots are in Samhain, an ancient Celtic pagan fest (as in Druids, etc.). November 1 was the Celtic New Year.

And on the night before the new year, on the “eve,” the dead were said to be able to visit the earth for a short time. Good for them, bad for you.

But when the Christian church came on the scene, it decided the pagan fest was unsavory; they preferred a nice saints’ day instead. In 731 A.D., November 1 was declared All Saints’ Day (All Hallows Day).

October 31 therefore was All Hallows Eve, shortened to Halloween. (“Hallowed” means “sanctified” or “holy.”)

So why the pumpkins?

That’s all perhaps connected to an Irish legend, about a clever fellow named Jack. He met the devil, tricked him a few time (like getting the old geezer to climb a tree, then carving a cross in the trunk so the devil was stuck).

The devil wasn’t defeated, of course, but mighty irritated. He put a curse on poor Jack and had the last laugh: when Jack died, poor fellow had to wander the world at night with nothing but a pitiful candle made out of a hollowed-out turnip with a candle stuck in it.

You see where this is going. A restless dead spirit, wandering around on the earth, carrying a carved-out vegetable with a candle inside . . . sounds like Halloween!

Then, the Irish came to America, and before you knew it, the turnip, beet, or potato lantern was super-sized! Enter the pumpkin, a native American squash, which as you know, with a little care and fertilizer, can grow really large! Way better than a dinky turnip, don’t you think?

So, the jack-o-lantern is a natural lantern, perfect for Halloween. You may not want to carry one around like Jack had to, but it’s a good idea to put one outside your house on your front steps . . . on a night when the dead are wandering around. Wouldn’t want them to trip and fall and skin their ghostly knees . . . and get mad at you!

The Loup-Garou

The loup garou

Most folks are familiar with werewolves, but this post introduces you to the Loup-Garou!

The loup-garou (comes from Latin lupus, for wolf) was a French version of the werewolf. The tales were imported to North America by early French voyageurs and settlers. The supernatural creature was an afflicted person under an enchantment; the poor fellow was turned into a hairy beast and roamed the woods at night in search of its prey.

Of course, if the right thing was done (as in the tale below from Vincennes, Indiana), the loup-garou might be released from its spell.

Real? Who knows. Useful? Like other scary stories, the legend could always be used to scare young children into obedience: “If you don’t behave, the loup-garou will get you.”

The loup garou
Werewolves of various sorts are found in the lore of many cultures.

According to The Moonlit Road: Strange Tales from the American South, in Cajun lore:

To protect against the Cajun loup garou : lay 13 small objects such as pennies, beans, or broom straws by your doors. The werewolf is not too bright. She cannot count higher than 12. When she comes to the 13th object, she gets soooo confused and has to start over. The poor thing will be there counting all night until the dawn when she must flee the sun.

(Apparently, the loup-garou could also be used to scare kids into studying their math lessons.)

Here’s a legend collected in the 1920s by Anna C. O’Flynn, a school teacher in the old French section of Vincennes, Indiana, found in an unpublished WPA manuscript circa 1937, The Creole (French) Pioneers at Old Post Vincennes. The loup-garou stories were credited to the telling of one Pepe Boucher.

The collection appeared on the website Folklore, Legends, Tall Tales: An Interactive Casebook for Knox County, Indiana, created by Richard L. King, reference librarian at the Shake Library of Vincennes University.

Charlie Page’s Loup Garou Story
As told by Pepe Boucher

Page was a dare-devil kind of man who hunted in the woods and feared nothing. He carried a “dirque,” or a big long blade knife, that open and shut with some kind of spring on its back. All he did to open the blade was press his finger on the back and puff! it was open.

There be plenty of Indians in those days and they knew Page and his beeg knife. Still Page and the Indians be pretty good friends; they know he not be afraid of them or their medicine man. In fact he not think of Heaven nor Hell with fear.

One night he was going home out past Vinegar Hill, a great big black dog stood in the path and growled and gnashed his teeth at Page. The dog did not seem to know that Page never got out of any animal’s path so there it stood even when Page said “A bas chien,” [Down, dog!] then wagging his hand said “Au Revoir.”

Other dogs get out of the big man’s way when he wave his hand. “Mais” [But] this one come advancing with hideous howls and gleaming red eyes that be like coals of fire in the black of the night. Then Page he be mad at the dog and he said “Bete Noir Vole! Vole!” [Black beast, got lost!]

Mais, the black beast did not fly away from him nor turn its eyes from his. With a great leap it came nearer to him by five feet. Then Page cursed and lifted his big foot to kick it in the jaw. With a stealthy pantherlike movement the great frothing beast sprang at his throat.

You bet this time he tried to kick and get his knife to finish the dog whose hot breath was singeing his hair – whose great paws were tearing his shoulders and whose fangs were near his neck. With one of his powerful arms he grab the neck of the dog until his tongue hang out. The shaggy hair on the dog’s neck be lashing his face and his eyes blazing with madness. The loup garou be trying to bewitch Page.

He know now it be loup garou.

Click here to read the rest of this tale and other loup-garou legends of the Vincennes area.

Need more proof? Here’s evidence, from a rambling legend of a man and his bride from the area of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. It references:

the story of one adventurous hunter who, determined to try his skill, made a bullet from a silver coin and patiently waited for his victim “to cross his path.” The cursed bullet sped toward the Loup Garou and instead of killing the monster only severed his tail, which was found, dried and stuffed. It was the wonder of the region, and was adored for years by the Indians as a powerful good luck piece.

There you go! A real Loup Garou tail (pun unavoidable)! What more do you need?

The Canterville Ghost

The Otis Twins Pester the Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a wonderful example of the humorous ghost story. Written by Dublin-born author and satirist Oscar Wilde and first published in 1887, it’s an entertaining parody of the spooky story.

Summary: Traditional English Spook Meets Progressive American Family

The story begins when American Minister to England, Hiram B. Otis, and his family move into Canterville Chase, a grand old mansion, despite warnings the house is haunted. Mr. Otis doubts it, but figures he can buy the place, ghost and all, at a bargain price. The family includes Mr. and Mrs. Otis, their 15-year-old daughter Virginia, rambunctious twin boys, and older son Washington.

Indeed, after the family moves, they see bloodstains reappear on the carpet after being washed, and they witness other strange apparitions. But the Otis family just doesn’t find these things all that spooky. When the resident ghost, a theatrical 300-year-old fellow named Simon, tries to scare the family in a diligently traditional manner, Mr. Otis just responds with practical solutions, offering stain-removers, lubricants and other products to fix the problems of blood-stains, squeaky chains, etc.

Meanwhile, the rascally young twins set out to make things miserable for the poor ghost, laying trip wires, assaulting him with pea shooters, setting up butter slides and traps.

The Otis Twins Pester the Canterville Ghost
The bratty American twins of the Otis family lay a trap for the venerable British ghost of Canterville, in Oscar Wilde’s classic ghost story (1909 illustration by Wallace Goldsmith).

Here, for instance, in comparison to the scene in Charles Dicken’s 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, in which ghost Jacob Marley scrapes his way down the hall to the quaking Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom, dragging his ghastly clanking chains . . . the Canterville ghost tries to pull off the same, with inferior results.

At eleven o’clock the family retired, and by half-past all the lights were out. Some time after, Mr. Otis was awakened by a curious noise in the corridor, outside his room. It sounded like the clank of metal, and seemed to be coming nearer every moment. He got up at once, struck a match, and looked at the time. It was exactly one o’clock.

He was quite calm, and felt his pulse, which was not at all feverish. The strange noise still continued, and with it he heard distinctly the sound of footsteps. He put on his slippers, took a small oblong phial out of his dressing-case, and opened the door.

Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

‘My dear sir,’ said Mr. Otis, ‘I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect on the wrapper from some of our most eminent native divines.

‘I shall leave it here for you by the bedroom candles, and will be happy to supply you with more should you require it.’

With these words the United States Minister laid the bottle down on a marble table, and, closing his door, retired to rest.

For a moment the Canterville ghost stood quite motionless in natural indignation; then, dashing the bottle violently upon the polished floor, he fled down the corridor, uttering hollow groans, and emitting a ghastly green light.

It’s a fun-to-read spooky tale. There’s a lovely little edition available from Candlewick Press, and The Canterville Ghost can also be found online (e.g., an illustrated version at Project Gutenberg).

Edgar Allan Poe and “The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe and The Raven

The year 2009 was the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mr. Poe was a master of the bone-chilling literary spooky story. And he could create a disturbing sense of unease, growing slowly in intensity, without resorting to monsters, zombies, werewolves, or vampires. Instead, he often just used a slightly mysterious thing.

Like a big black bird, discovered tapping at your window pane.

“The Raven” (1845)
Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping,
suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered,
“tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”

Nothing more? Are you sure?

This great poem oozes with a creepy, dark mood, as the narrator, sitting alone by the glowing embers of a dying fire, brooding over the death of a loved one . . . hears the sound . . . of gentle rapping.

And it’s a lot of fun to read out loud.

We recommend checking out this lovely version of “The Raven” poem from the TeachersFirst website, with nice lettering, highlighted words, and definitions of the many strange words . . . it’s a delight to explore it in this form.