Ghostly Tales, Legends, and Lore

To celebrate the spirit (pun intended) of Halloween, here’s a collection of literature and lore related to the Ozarks and to the land many of our ancestors called home. Leave a comment to be entered in this month’s giveaway; the winner will be posted on Sunday, November 1st.

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Crescent Hotel

A local site said to be home of “the unusual and unexplainable” is the legendary Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In an excerpt of The Haunting of America by Troy Taylor, we’re introduced to lingering spirits:

Staff members receive frequent reports from overnight guests of strange goings-on in their rooms and in the hallways. Room 424 has had several visitations but the most famous haunted spot is the previously mentioned Room 218. Several guests and employees have encountered strange sounds and sensations in that room. Doors have slammed shut and some people claim to have been shaken awake at night. One man, a salesman, was asleep in Room 218 one night when his shoulder was violently shaken back and forth. He awakened just long enough to hear footsteps hurry across the floor. He saw no one in the room.

Who this particular ghost may be is unknown, although some believe it is the spirit of the man who was killed during the hotel’s construction. His body was said to have fallen just about where the room is currently located. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any particular macabre history about this room. A story of the hotel has it that the wife of one of the hotel’s past owners stayed in the room. At one point in the middle of the night, she ran screaming from the room, claiming that she had seen blood spattered all over the walls. Several staff members ran up to take a look but found no blood and nothing else out of the ordinary….

Another ghost of the hotel is that of a distinguished-looking man with a mustache and beard and who dresses in old-fashioned, formal clothing. He seems to favor the lobby of the hotel and a bar that is decorated in the style of the Victorian era. People who claim they have talked to the man say that he never responds, he only sits quietly and then vanishes. In an interview, a staff member recounted one odd experience with the silent ghost: “During the summer, we had two auditors work for us because we’re so busy. One of these men left the front desk to get a drink of water in the bar, after it was closed. He told me that he saw some guy sitting on a barstool, staring straight ahead. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t move. Our guy left to get his partner, who was still at the front desk. They came back and spoke to the man. They thought he was drunk”.

When the man again did not respond, the two auditors decided to leave him alone and go back to work. As they looked back over their shoulders on the way out of the bar though, they saw that the barstool was now empty. The man was nowhere in the room.

“One of them started searching for the man,” the staff member added. “He looked around the lobby, which is about 25 to 30 yards across, everywhere in that area. The auditor who was looking around went over to the steps (a staircase ascends from the lobby). The fellow from the bar was on the second-floor landing, looking down at him. He went up but as he got to the second floor, he felt something push him back down again. That’s when he got the manager and told him what had happened.”

Read a longer excerpt here.

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Whether it’s lingering spirits or just the magical feeling you’ll find in the hills and hollers, the Ozarks seem to inspire generations of creative souls. That’s certainly true of Jack R. Cotner–author, artist, poet, and painter–who calls this place home. Here’s one of his poems, reprinted in full with his permission, that seems a perfect fit for the time when some believe the dead may walk among the living:

Goodbye My Love, Goodbye 

© Jack R. Cotner

Retreating inward from the pain,

I smell the sweetness of her hair

As we move along the path. I strain

Uphill, dragging muddied weight to where

Headstones squat like sacred peaks between

Mowed grass where walked mourning crones.

Stoic statues weathered, weeping, still serene,

Guarding lengthy rows of buried bones.

We halt. Crows pass, loud caws abating.

A portal beyond the pale awaits, silent.

The gaping hole lies open, waiting, waiting

For my dearest here quiet, broken, spent.

Farewell, sweet beauty, unfaithful miss.

I weep. Red lipstick on blue, icy lips

Beckons. Entranced, I take one final kiss

Before tossing splendor into the dark abyss.

Goodbye my love, goodbye.

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In addition to poetry, Jack also writes a Celtic mystery series set in the 5th century. Many who settled in the Ozarks came here from the land of the Celts, and their descendants have kept some of the old ways alive though storytelling and more. Wander far enough in the hills and hollers and you just may come across folks paying homage to the ways of old and safeguarding traditions from one generation to the next. Having my own share of Celtic blood I appreciate the old legends and lore.  One such story is the story of Samhain, the original Halloween. This comes from the gifted writer Ali Isaac, “guardian of Irish mythology.” Here’s the tale:

People are watching a huge bonfire, a tradition with easter in Nort-West Europe.

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.

The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to lower winter pastures where they would be safer from starving predators; the weakest and least likely to survive the winter would be slaughtered for their meat, and so began the task of meat preservation. Firewood or turf would be collected and stacked up to keep the home hearths burning, homes shored up against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for the bounty of Summer they had been given, rejoicing at the completion of all their hard work and preparation, and a time to welcome in the new year.

The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.

As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the golden fiery orb of the sun slipped beyond the horizon and darkness took hold, huge communal bonfires were lit. Torches would be dipped into the sacred fire and carefully carried home to rekindle the hearth fires, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.

It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.

Read the rest at Ali’s website. If Irish mythology appeals to you, be sure to check out Ali’s wonderful books here.

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Whatever your beliefs, wishing you a magical weekend!

samhain_by_cosmosue

Of Legend, Of Life

spooky-fire

As promised, here’s another post about Ozark magic, folklore, and superstition. This one was written by  Joshua Heston and first appeared on June 11, 2014 on the State of the Ozarks website.

As I did while researching my series, Joshua drew upon the work of folklorist Vance Randolph, who traveled throughout the Ozarks in the 1920s and 1930s talking to the hillfolk whose families have called these hills and hollers home for generations.

I’ll note that Randolph, as the scholar and researcher he was, recorded those conversations faithfully, to include explicit descriptions and graphic narratives some might find amusing but others might consider the tales impolite. (If you’re easily offended, look elsewhere.)  If what you seek is a better understanding of the region and its customs, Randolph is an excellent source. As noted  on the back cover of the 1947 edition of Randolph’s Ozark Superstitions:

The Ozark region of Missouri and Arkansas has long been an enclave of resistance to innovation and “newfangled” ideas. Many of the old-time superstitions and customers have been nurtured and kept alive through the area’s relative isolation and the strong attachment of the hillfolk to these old attitudes….Through casual conversations rather than by direct questioning, he has been able gradually to compile a singularly authentic record of Ozark superstition. His book contains a vast amount of folklorist material, including legends, beliefs, ritual verses and sayings, and odd practices of the hillpeople, plus a wealth of general cultural data.

To understand the Ozarks, one must understand the hillfolk and their roots–their fears, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. My thanks to Joshua for allowing me to repost this in its entirety.

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Ozark Magic & Hoodo

Our rational, scientific world filled with textbook knowledge and an overabundance of electronic equipment has little room for the unknown or inexplicable.

“Faith” is carefully relegated to quiet, predictable corners of our lives where it won’t interfere with the larger, homogenized world around us. And old beliefs — let’s just call it superstitious folklore and be done with it — are left in the increasingly dim past or the pages of a dusty library book.

North America is an amalgamation of peoples — and an amalgamation of beliefs. It is common knowledge many Europeans — Protestant sects and Catholics alike — fled to the New World to avoid religious persecution.

But how many escaped Europe only to be persecuted for their beliefs here — beliefs animistic and pagan? We’ll likely never know the real numbers for people hiding in the shadows rarely keep accurate roll calls.

“A moment after he said he could see a great serpent moving about the room, and became considerably excited. I saw nothing with any definite shape, but thought that black clouds were forming about me. I felt I must fall into a trance if I did not struggle against it, and that the influence which was causing this trance was out of harmony with itself, in other words, evil.” — page 34, The Celtic Twilight, W.B. Yeats

Across the world, oppressed peoples have oft-retreated to the wild places for safety: the Caucasus Mountains, the Black Forest, the mountains of Haiti, of Appalachia, the bayous of Louisiana, and the rough hill country of the Ozarks all became — at one time or another — refuge for those civilization attempted to destroy.

And it is there the lines between dark and light, magic and faith, heaven and hell, can become thin indeed.

The Ozark Mountains were a meeting place of diverse and underground cultures: Native American tribes (the Delaware, Osage, Cherokee), African-American slaves, wild, tempestuous Pentecostals, and dark, Europeans sects rarely found in the history books.

An amalgamation of ideas — some secret and hidden away, some loudly expressed — came together in these hills ultimately populated by a sequestered people not in the habit of sharing their ways with outsiders.

Vance Randolph would write, sometime in the 1940s, “Some of them [Ozarkers] will even deny that they ever heard of witches or witchmasters. The truth is, however, that a great many Ozarkers do believe these things. I meet people everyday who are firm believers in witchcraft, and I have been personally acquainted with more than a score of so-called witches myself.”

To modern sensibilities, this is the stuff of legend, of mythology and pointless folklore.

To those who believe, however, it is life and power.

The tangle of cultural influences hang like a mass of river vines over dark water. Truly, how different is the interpretation of Mark 16 — “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them” — and the rituals of Vodou’s Damballah, a snake loa celebrated in New Orleans for life and wisdom?

“Of course, we had our snake-handlers too. Those who took up serpents, they were called. They were good people, and I noticed others seemed afraid to say anything against them, because they showed such love, and wore such sweet countenances. You’ve got to walk a straight walk, walk a good walk, walk with real faith if you’re going to pick up one of those rattlesnakes fresh out of the mountains.”— page 26, Up On Melody Mountain, by Betty Jean Robinson

Into this land came dispossessed Christian sects, European witchcraft cults, faith healers, Indian medicine men, hoodoo practitioners (the “country cousin” of vodou). Join with that the Ozarks’ dark places of the earth — deep and mysterious holes in the mountains and dim, shadowy coves — and you have a hidden culture no less real than the supernatural religions of West Africa or Southeast Asia.

These old mountains are littered with place names reflective of a darker past: Devil’s Den (Notch), the Devil’s Backbone (Ozark County, Missouri), the Devil’s Kitchen (Cassville), the Devil’s Racetrack (Welcome Home), Devil’s Well (Aker’s Ferry), Devil’s Rock Pile (Douglas County, Missouri), Devil’s Half-Acre (Mena), Devil’s Promenade (Joplin).

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” reads Exodus 22:18 and more than a few back country churchgoers took that word literally, giving strength to what Vance Randolph would record as “witch masters, white witches, witch doctors, faith doctors, goomer doctors and conjure folks,” —

“I once knew a man who spent half-an-hour or so every evening playing with a wooden spite doll, which was dressed to resemble a local woman who could ‘do things.’ Time after time he would thrust the little image into the fireplace, until the feet touched the glowing embers, and then snatch it out again. The expression on his face was most unpleasant. I am quite indifferent to the ordinary superstitions of the hillfolk. I visit graveyards at night, shoot cats on occasion, burn sassafras wood without a tremor. And yet, something akin to horror gripped me, as I watched the witch master’s sadistic foolery. I should not care to have that man burning a poppet wrapped in my undershirt.“ — page 289, Ozark Magic & FolkloreVance Randolph.

It is a history of persecuted peoples — the lost and wandering — despised and misunderstood by the civilizations around them, all hidden away from a larger world. It is a story of quests for power and security, love and revenge.

Ultimately, this is a story of choices between light and dark, heaven and hell, all in those strange in-between places where the lines are inexplicably blurred.

Perhaps it is not just old timey folklore after all.

–Joshua Heston (June 11, 2014)

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To read more by Joshua Heston and to learn more about the Ozarks, visit StateoftheOzarks.net, a site “dedicated to the celebration and preservation of Ozark culture.”

Gone to the Grave

Having just visited the Eureka Springs cemetery for the Silent Voices living history tour, this post seems perfectly timed. I’m reblogging a book review of Gone to the Grave, which was written by the scholar and researcher Abby Burnett, gives us a fascinating snapshot of the customs and traditions practiced in the Ozarks for generations. My thanks to fellow Arkansas author Jack Cotner, whose work ranges from poetry to short stories to novels. His most recent work, Mystery of the Death Hearth, is an expertly crafted murder mystery involving the Celtic and Roman cultures as they might have been in the 5th century. I highly recommend it!

GoneToTheGraveAbbyBurnett

The leaves cross over our graveyards

When the cold wind blows and raves

They whirl and scatter on the frozen ground

Then settle on the sunken graves

They put me to mind of the children of the earth

The mournful condition of us all

We are fresh and green in the spring of the year

And are blown in the grave in the fall.

–Florence Elizabeth Rutherford, 1873-1889

Rutherford Cemetery, Independence County Arkansas

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Abby Burnett’s Gone to the Grave: Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850-1950 is an interesting, intriguing read exploring the traditions surrounding death, local customs and rituals concerning bereavement, and the burial practices in the Arkansas Ozarks. It is excellent in its research, narrative, and visual presentation. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in such subject matter.

I had the pleasure to meet author Abby Burnett, a former freelance newspaper reporter, at the Books In Bloom event in Eureka Springs, Arkansas May 2015 and again this past week during her presentation at the Fayetteville, Arkansas Public Library. Her speaking and presentation abilities are every bit as impressive as her knowledge and expertise on Arkansas burial history and customs.

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 “This painstakingly researched and thoroughly engaging book is as much an anthropological and sociological study as it is a historical and folklorist account of death, dying, and burial in the Arkansas Ozarks…there is virtually no source of information that Burnett hasn’t explored—epitaphs, business ledgers, funeral home records, obituaries, WPA questionnaires, health department regulations, oral history interviews, ministers’ journals, censuses, mortality schedules, doctors’ notes, undertakers’ record books, historical photographs, museum collections, and newspaper accounts…”

–Allyn Lord, Director, Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, Springdale, Arkansas

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I hear a voice you cannot hear

Which says I must not stay,

I see a hand you cannot see

Which beckons me away.

–S. N. Lyle, 1875-1932

Lowes Creek Cemetery, Franklin County, Arkansas

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I previously hosted Abby Burnett here on the blog. She shared some wonderful stories about her research, to include burial customs involving pets (something she’s continuing to research). You can find that here.

Jack Cotner’s name may be familiar to you, as well. That’s because I chose one of Jack’s poems (Do the Dead Call?) to read on air as part of National Public Radio’s National Poetry Month. And if you like poetry with a bit of a twist, here’s another of his that’s perfect for the season: Goodbye, My Love, Goodbye.

I also featured Jack’s book Mystery of the Death Hearth on this site. Find that here. That same post includes information about his short story collection titled Storytellin’: True & Fictional Short Stories of Arkansas

As you can see, the Ozarks are home to some terrific writers. I highly recommend all these books!

Digging for Treasure

Group_of_Gun_Dogs_from_1915

Gun dogs: in Dogs of All Nations (W.E. Mason, 1915)

While mystery fiction has quite a few dog-related series, none of them were set in a boarding kennel at the time Deadly Ties was published. Makes a great setting with plenty of characters coming and going—and dogs, of course!

The kennel becomes the physical “anchor” for the book, and for the entire series. As the series opens, kennel owner and dog trainer Maggie Porter is focused on attracting clients and getting the kennel up and running. Her opening coincides with the Merchants’ League’s latest campaign to promote tourism. It’s a new twist on a folktale: business leaders have created a regional “Treasures of the Ozarks” marketing campaign to encourage tourism. The world of business loves tag lines and slogans, and my fictional business leaders are no different. In the story, some clever PR person christens Waterside Kennels  “the newest treasure of the Ozarks.”

And here’s where I should confess: although I’m fascinated by Ozark myths and legends, I didn’t rush right out and buy a metal detector when I first heard the tales about buried treasure. I will tell you, though, that meeting  historian and folklorist Mr. Philip Steele fired up my imagination. With his encouragement, I began plotting a series of books that will include regional folktales and superstitions.

As I researched the old tales, I discovered a great many folks are convinced that treasure really exists, and they’re determined to find it. Others are just as convinced that the treasure talks are pure fiction, and are heartily sick of treasure hunters trespassing on their lands. Since many of those trespassers like to cut fences and dig holes—which they leave unfilled for some unlucky wanderer to fall into—I can certainly appreciate the landowners’ perspective, and I’ve taken care to alter some of the details I was given. That hasn’t stopped some from demanding more information. At one signing, a reader approached with a copy of the book in one hand and a map in the other, and wanted me to mark the location of the silver mentioned in the story!

I’ve also discovered that treasure hunting seems a recession-proof occupation. Since I started researching this series back in the late 1990s, I continue to see the topic of treasure active in online discussions. Even now the forums frequented by coin collectors have posts debating the best places now to use their metal detectors in their quest for Indian silver, Spanish gold, or Civil War relics.

One of the most active sites appears to be TreasureNet, with most participants passionate about metal detecting. That’s where I first came across the Treasure Hunter’s Code of Ethics. (Who knew?) You can find the code posted wherever you buy metal detectors; while the language might vary  from one site to the next, the key principles remain the same. It’s too bad the trespassing treasure hunters won’t abide by the Code.

The treasure hunters’ forums are full of tales and superstitions. And when a tale leads to a “find” that’s enough to keep them searching for more. And so the legends live on, and folktales are passed along, from one generation to the next, keeping the old tales alive. What’s truth? What’s not? Find the right mix, and you have a story waiting to be told.

The Beautiful Ozarks

When I travel, I’m often asked “What’s it like to live in the Ozarks?” Borrowing a Native American phrase I like to say that to live among these hills is to “walk in beauty.” You needn’t take my word for it, though. Here’s a slideshow of photographs taken by Arkansas photographer David Dedman:

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These photographs capture the beauty of our region with its clear waters, deep forests, rugged hillsides and deep valleys. This is the landscape of my mystery series. That landscape is at risk in book #2 when land swindlers and greedy developers set their sights on Hogan County. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want–even if that means murder. When you read the book, I hope you’ll think of David’s photographs and understand what the good people of Hogan County are fighting to preserve.

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David Dedman Photography is on Facebook. His work is for sale on the Fine Art America website. Click on any photo on that site and a page appears showing you the myriad media available (acrylic, framed print, canvas, etc.) You can enjoy his work on throw pillows, tote bags, greeting cards, and more.

Leave a comment and let us know which is your favorite among these beautiful photographs!

Sharing a Love of Mysteries

One of my favorite places in the world is a library. That’s where I’ll be today, visiting with fans and friends at the Fayetteville (AR) Public Library. If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

Susan Holmes Book Discussion-Signing 10-11-15

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I’ll be back here soon to share more about facts and folktales in regional mysteries. Remember there’s a giveaway in progress, so be sure to leave a comment!

October Journeys

Elk in Boxley Valley, Arkansas © Steve Creek, Photographer www.stevecreek.com

Elk in Boxley Valley, Arkansas © Steve Creek, Photographer http://www.stevecreek.com

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, every fog in October means a snow in December. The hills and hollers I call home have been cloaked in fog at least five mornings to date, with friends in remote homesteads and farms reporting even more. We’ve been lucky (so far) that the sun breaks through by mid-morning and the days quickly warm, making it perfect for great adventures.

One adventure sure to interest the whole family is the 27th annual Pea Ridge Mule Jump on Saturday, October 10th. From what I’ve learned, mules are not particularly impressed with the idea of jumping, and their handlers have quite a task to get them moving. If you, like me, wonder why anyone would expect a mule to jump at all, here’s one explanation I found in a post authored by Times editor Annette Beard:

“Mule jumping comes from a tradition in coon hunting of having mules jump over fences rather than finding gates. Hunters throw a blanket over the fence so the mule will jump it. Mules can jump flat footed.”

Elkhorn Tavern National Military Park

Elkhorn Tavern National Military Park

Pea Ridge, by the way, was home to what’s considered by many to be one of the most pivotal battles in the Civil War. Also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, Pea Ridge is one of the most intact battlefields in the nation. It’s a National Park site and worth a visit. History buffs might be interested in comparing the Union Army and Confederate Army reports, found here.

River View at Calf Creek

River View at Calf Creek

If you miss the mule jump or want to see a different sort of wildlife, head over to the Buffalo River area. A friend who lives out that way reports that visitors are already crowding into Boxley Valley ahead of the fall colors to see the rutting elk. (Rutting season runs mid-September into November.) If you’re planning a trip out that way, you’ll find maps and helpful information at Arkansas.com and the Buffalo River Regional Chamber site. Enjoy the scenic drive while you’re out that way, too. Explore the Buffalo River (the first national river), the Lost Valley State Park and its trails, or just enjoy a leisurely scenic drive through the valley.

And–in keeping with the theme of legends and folklore this month–mark your calendars for Voices from Eureka’s Silent City (a fundraiser for the Eureka Spring Historical Museum):

Eureka Springs Voices from the silent city

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So…what’s on your schedule this month? Don’t forget: leave a comment on any or all posts this month to be entered in the drawing mentioned here.