July 19, 2017

Spend Your Summer Vacation With Sasquatch and H.P. Lovecraft

Do elementary school students still need to write essays about what they did on their summer vacation? I seem to remember this was a common practice when I was a child, but honestly I'm not sure if it's a real memory or just something that I saw on TV a lot.

Either way, I usually spent my summer vacations swimming in a nearby pond, playing Dungeons and Dragons, riding my bike, and doing children's theater. These activities were supplemented by long periods of reading musty paperbacks, mostly science fiction, fantasy and horror, but also paranormal and occult books too. Erich Von Daniken, Charles Fort, John Keel, Charles Berlitz - I was an indiscriminate reader of weird stuff. These authors confirmed my suspicions that the Bermuda Triangle was a gateway to Atlantis guarded by UFOs flown by Sasquatches from the hollow Earth.

Of course I'm kidding about those UFOs (well, mostly), but I suspect a lot of my readers had similarly strange summers. Unfortunately that sense of untrammeled possibility tends to shrink as you get older, as does the amount of vacation time you get. It's hard to focus on Sasquatch when you've got bills to pay and a family to care for.

If you want to immerse yourself in high weirdness this summer but have limited time, you might want to try one of these short but intense experiences: NecronomiCon Providence, and the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017. Spend a weekend experiencing strange New England at its best! It's almost as good as spending the whole summer reading musty old paperbacks.

Author H.P. Lovecraft

NecronomiCon Providence takes place August 17 - 20 at Providence's Biltmore and Omni hotels. This multi-day convention celebrates the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's master of horror and weird fiction. Lovecraft included a lot of authentic local lore into his stories so folklore buffs should find plenty to enjoy. NecronomiCon is a mix of popular culture programming and academic lectures so really there's something for everyone.

For example, if you're in an intellectual mood you can attend a lecture on non-Euclidean geometry (one of Lovecraft's favorite tropes) or one titled "The Madness of Minds: Consciousness and Materialism in Lovecraft’s Fiction." Heady stuff! Other sessions feature panelists discussing Lovecraft's well-documented and unfortunate racism. If you're in a pop culture mood, you can watch a Lovecraftian film, play a role-playing game, or take a virtual walking tour of Providence. And you won't want to miss the tongue-in-cheek Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. It's a weekend of fun and unspeakable chaos for the whole family! I've attended NecronomiCon in the past, and when I left my mind was overflowing with strange and uncanny knowledge.
  
If you'd rather head up north, you can attend the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017, which will be held on Labor Day weekend at the Clarion Hotel on September 3. This looks like it will be a fantastic conference. It features well-known speakers like Linda Godfrey, who investigates werewolf and dogman sightings, Loren Coleman (one of the leading figures in American cryptozoology) and Joseph Citro, one of my favorite New England folklore writers. I am sure that spooky stories will abound.

A new documentary about the Mothman of Pleasant Point will also be shown at the conference. I love the Mothman stories, so I was excited to hear about this. Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about sea serpents, Sasquatch, and even hear from an expert on how to carve Bigfoot sculptures with a chainsaw. Again, fun for the whole family, but you may want to keep the chainsaw away from the kids. 

When you go back to school (or work) you'll definitely have something to talk about. If other people say things like "I went fishing and camped in the White Mountains this summer," you can smile the confident and knowing smile of one who has experienced strange things before you share your bizarre summer adventures.

July 10, 2017

Vermont's Giant Prehistoric Frog

Have you ever seen the movie Trog (1970)? It's a British horror film and was the last movie that Joan Crawford made before she died. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one of my favorites.


The basic premise is this: some handsome young spelunkers are exploring a cave when they encounter something terrifying. The surviving spelunker is driven insane by what he saw, but anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford) believes he has seen a prehistoric hominid. She manages to capture the creature, names him Trog, and tries to teach him to be human. Of course it doesn't go well and by the end of the movie Trog is ripping off people's arms, setting fires, and terrorizing small children.


There are many things to like about Trog: Joan Crawford, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, bad dialogue, and a gory ending. But I really like the idea that lurking underneath our mundane landscape are ancient, prehistoric beings frozen in time waiting to emerge and amaze us. It's been the premise of a lot of horror movies, but none are quite as good as Trog.


I don't think anyone now really believes that there are prehistoric monsters sleeping in suspended animation below our feet, but in 1865 some miners in Vermont discovered something deep under the Green Mountain State. It was not Trog, but was instead a frog. The New York Herald ran the following article on October 20, 1922:

Vermont's Monster Frog

Unearthed 114 Feet Underground by Workmen In a Mine Shaft
To The New York Herald : In the summer of 1865 workmen while digging in a new shaft at an ochre mine at Forestdale, Vt., unearthed a huge bullfrog at a vertical depth of 114 feet underground. The frog lay dormant in a sort of pocket or miry hole, and aside from the fact of its being found at so great a depth its large size and its excellent state of preservation attracted attention.

The frog was 14 inches long from the tip of its head to the end of its spine, which is really big, but otherwise resembled an ordinary bullfrog. At first the miners just thought it was dead, but it soon began to twitch and eventually revivified. After showing it to several townspeople the miners brought it to a pond, where it lived and croaked loudly for many years.

The reporter goes on to speculate that the giant frog had been hibernating for thousands of years, and had been frozen underground during an ice age. (This is almost exactly the same plot as Trog!) The frog story was told to the Herald reporter by one Frank Rogers of Brandon, Vermont, who claims to have seen the frog emerge from the mine when he was 15 years old.


Sadly, I think this story is probably a hoax, and it was not the only story of its kind. Joseph Citro cites several similar ones, some dating back to the 1700s, in his book Weird New England. This 1922 story may just have been the latest version of a long folklore tradition. Giant frogs also figure in some Native American myths from New England, like this one about how the hero Glooskap defeats a giant frog, so the local obsession with monstrous frogs could be something that predates English settlement.

I recently read Alan Moore's Lovecraftian comic series Providence. One character proposes the following interesting idea: the subterranean, the past, and our subconscious are all the same thing. According to this character, when we dig underground we are digging into our past, and also digging into our subconscious dreamworld. So perhaps those Vermont miners found something subconscious that wanted to see the light of day. Hopefully it was happy croaking in that pond.

July 04, 2017

New England Folklore In The News: UFOs, Sasquatch Graffiti, Monomoy and Witch Talk!

There has been a surprising amount of strange New England folklore in the news this week. Summer is usually a slow time for news, but I guess that doesn't hold true if it's really weird and unusual.

UFOs in New Hampshire

First up, someone in Merrimack, New Hampshire took a photo of an unidentified thing in the sky on June 26. What is it? An alien craft? A giant space jellyfish?

Something strange seen over Merrimack, New Hampshire
The photographer sent the photo to NH1 News and several other websites. A NH1 meteorologist thought it might be the sun refracting off some clouds, while the people at UFO Sightings Hotspot thought it was probably just a lens flare.

The photographer didn't actually see the object/flare with their naked eye, only through their camera. They wrote the following on UFOStalker.com:

I took my kids to the park, clouds came in and it got dark, the sun was shining threw the clouds on the right so I started taking photos as it was beautiful as I was looking at the pictures I captured I noticed it away from the sun under the clouds not with my eyes with my photo.  so here it is no idea what it is but it's interesting

New Hampshire has a long and venerable history with UFO sightings. And as many people know, one of the most famous UFO abductions allegedly occurred in the Granite State when Betty and Barney Hill had an unusual encounter on a lonely road in 1961. Were they really abducted by aliens, or is there another explanation? Their niece Kathleen Marden recently spoke at a UFO convention in Roswell, New Mexico. You can read her thoughts on the case here

Bigfoot Graffiti in Kennebunk, Maine

Meanwhile, people up in Kennebunk, Maine were disturbed by strange activity of another kind. Not alien abductions, but rather someone defacing property with spray-painted images of Sasquatch. CBS News reports that Kennebunk police arrested a 36-year old man they say is responsible and charged him with criminal mischief and possession of drugs. There's no word on what motivated him to paint images of Sasquatch around town. 


Weird Tales from Monomoy Island

The Boston Globe recently ran an article about Cape Cod's Monomoy Island. Currently uninhabited, Monomoy once was home to a small village of fishermen and their families. The Globe notes that the islanders also had the reputation for being shipwreckers:

On stormy nights, Monomoyers would walk a limping old horse down the beach with two lanterns hanging from a pole mounted on his saddle. Mariners trying to get around the Cape would mistake the lanterns for the lighthouse, turn too soon, and wreck on the bars. The most sinister version of this story has the villagers murdering the ship’s crew. Wrecking continued until as recently as 1909, with the wreck of the Horatio Hall. Today, many homes in Chatham have china and silverware from the Hall and other wrecks.

Someone in the comments posted a link to an article in Cape Cod Life that downplays the shipwrecking and argues instead that most of the Monomoyers actually tried to save people from shipwrecks. That same article also notes that the island was haunted by a ghost called Old Yo-Ho who stalked Monomoy's shore at night, carrying a lantern and endlessly calling out his own name. 

Image from Cape Cod Life. 

Let's Talk About Witches!

Do you want to hear me talk about witchcraft? If you said yes, this is your lucky day. WAMC, an NPR affiliate from New York, interviewed me for their podcast "Listen With The Lights On." I talk about an early witchcraft trial from Springfield, Massachusetts, a young lady who was tormented by a spectral witch in the 1840s, and some teenage boys who encountered something witchy in the Freetown State Forest. 

That's it for this week. Who knows what weird stories will show up next? I'm hoping they're as good as these were!

June 27, 2017

Did H.P. Lovecraft Believe In Witches?

New England produced three of the world’s most famous horror authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft. They are all great in their own ways, but I find myself re-reading Lovecraft’s stories more than anything the other two wrote. Maybe it’s his overwrought prose, maybe it’s all those hideous tentacled monsters, or maybe it’s because he used a lot of authentic New England lore in his writings. Folk beliefs, legendary places and bizarre history all show up in Lovecraft’s work.

He also incorporated New England’s witchy history into several of his stories. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a wealthy young Providence scholar learns that one of his ancestors was an evil alchemist who fled Salem to escape the 1692 witchcraft trials, while in “The Shunned House” a man in Colonial Providence is suspected of witchcraft:
“Etienne’s son Paul, a surly fellow whose erratic conduct had probably provoked the riot which wiped out the family, was particularly a source of speculation; and though Providence never shared the witchcraft panics of her Puritan neighbours, it was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object.”
And of course, “Dreams in the Witch House” is full of witchcraft, as you might guess from the title. The story tells how college student Walter Gilman rents a room in an old house once inhabited by a witch named Keziah Mason. Mason escaped the Salem trials in 1692 by drawing strange diagrams on the wall of her jail cell; legends say she and her ratlike familiar spirit now haunt the house where Gilman is staying.

Still from the 2005 film Dreams In The Witch House.
 It turns out the legend is true, and soon she tries to get Gilman to become a witch:

“The expression on her face was one of hideous malevolence and exultation, and when he awaked he could recall a croaking voice that persuaded and threatened. He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos. That was what she said. He must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth and take a new secret name…”

Much of this is classic New England witchcraft lore (although the name Azathoth is Lovecraft’s own creation). Lovecraft incorporated other types of New England lore into his stories so it’s not really surprising.

H.P. Lovecraft

What is surprising is that Lovecraft believed that witches were real – at least to some extent. Lovecraft was a materialist and didn’t believe in magic or the supernatural, but he did think there was something real behind the legends.
“Something actual was going on under the surface, so that people really stumbled on concrete experiences from time to time which confirmed all they had ever heard of the witch species. In brief, scholars now recognize that all through history a secret cult of degenerate nature-worshipers, furtively recruited from the peasantry and sometimes from decadent characters of more select origin, has existed throughout northwestern Europe…” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 178, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
According to Lovecraft, this cult was once the dominant religion in Europe but was forced underground by the “more refined, evolved and poetic polytheism” practiced by groups like the Druids, the Romans and the Norse. In retaliation to attacks by these dominant groups the cult turned to malevolent magic and became identified as witches.

Lovecraft didn’t think many of these real witches came to New England as settlers, but he suspected that a few of them did make their way to Salem.
“For my part – I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved… Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witch case.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 181, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
Although this theory may seem strange now, Lovecraft wasn’t the only person who thought this way. It was widely accepted in the early 20th century. In the letter laying out his theory Lovecraft acknowledges Margaret Murray’s influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Murray was a prominent British Egyptologist with an interest in folklore and witchcraft. The Witch-Cult claimed that people accused of witchcraft in Europe were actually members of a pagan religion that secretly survived the Christianization of Europe.

Margaret Murray

Murray’s book received a mixed response when it was released. Critics felt she took the alleged witches’ confessions too literally and distorted the historic record to fit her theory, but the general reading public was more appreciative and Encyclopedia Brittanica even asked her to author their entry on witchcraft. Lovecraft was just reiterating an accepted theory of his day. Current historians discount Murray’s hypothesis and don’t think there was a secret witch cult in Europe or Salem. 

So even though there wasn’t really a secret witch cult in Salem, H.P. Lovecraft thought there might be. It just adds to the strange mix of folklore that makes New England such an interesting place.

June 21, 2017

The Black Flash of Provincetown: Hoax or Horror?

The first time I heard of the Black Flash was back in the early 2000s. I had bought a copy of Joseph Citro's Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Horrors and Hauntings (1997). This is an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in local folklore and spooky stories.

It also contains a lengthy section about the Black Flash, a mysterious entity who supposedly terrorized Provincetown in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I have vacationed on the Outer Cape for many years and was intrigued to learn about this local legend. Provincetown has a lot of strange characters, but the Black Flash was strange even for P-town.

According to Citro, the Black Flash first appeared in the fall of 1938 when children in Provincetown reported a sinister figure lurking in the dunes or hiding behind trees. They described the entity as being about 8’ tall and dressed all in black. He wore a long black cape and black hood that covered his head. Some children also said he had long silver ears and flaming eyes.

At first the adults in town just dismissed these accounts as stories from kids with overly active imaginations. But that changed when an adult woman named Maria Costa encountered the Black Flash in October. She was walking by Town Hall when the Black Flash jumped out from behind the bushes and started to chase her. He made a strange buzzing noise like a giant insect. Costa was terrified and ran into a nearby coffee shop, where she hysterically explained what happened. Several customers ran outside but couldn’t find a trace of the Black Flash. He had vanished.

Other people were also accosted by the Black Flash that fall. For example, a teenage boy ran to the police station after the creature jumped out at him on his way home from the library. He was terrified and in tears, and told the police the Flash had spit blue flames at him.

The Black Flash had the ability to leap over tall fences, and some locals even said he had springs in his heels. For example, a man named Charles Farley saw the creature lurking in his backyard and fired his shotgun at it. The Flash just just laughed and jumped, unharmed, over an eight-foot fence. He then disappeared from view.

Commercial Street in Provincetown (from Wikipedia)
In another case, the police got a call one night that the Black Flash was in a school playground, which was surrounded by a tall fence. Four police officers entered the yard with flashlights and pistols drawn. They got a good look at the Black Flash, and one officer swore his face was really just a silver painted mask. They told the Flash to surrender or they’d fire, but the Flash just laughed and jumped over the 10-foot fence that surrounded the school. Then he once again disappeared.

According to Citro, the Black Flash terrorized Provincetown for about seven years. The last time the Flash appeared was in December of 1945. Four children from the Janard family were playing in their yard on Standish Street when they saw the Flash creeping toward them through the fog. They ran into their house, terrified. Their parents weren’t home and they didn’t know what to do.

They could hear the Flash turning the doorknobs of the house, trying to get in. The youngest children hid behind chairs, but the oldest boy, Allen, filled a bucket with hot water and ran up to the second floor. He could see the Flash outside right below him. He opened the window and dumped the bucket of water on the Flash’s head. The Flash let out a startled gasp, and then slunk off like a wet cat.

And that was the last time the Black Flash was ever seen in Provincetown.

All this may sound like an urban legend, but there is evidence that something really occurred. On October, 26, 1939, The Provincetown Advocate printed a front-page article titled "Fall Brings Out the Black Flash. Hard Winter Certain As Cabin Fever Stories Start." To quote from the article:

It ain’t usually until “cabin fever” time that the balmy stories start. After folks have been penned up here for too long a time, in too little space, with just the same faces to look at every morning, afternoon and evening, then the crazy yarns begin circulating.

But winter seems to be shutting in early this year. Here it is only October and the “Black Flash” has been prowling, scaring kids so that they won’t go out nights and won't go to bed, grabbing women, jumping over ten foot hedges with no trouble at all. “Chair springs on his feet” is the explanation.

On November 9, the paper ran a short follow up piece titled “Chief Denies Current Rumors.”

Chief of Police Anthony P. Tarvers this morning absolutely denied the rumors current that the so-called “Black Flash” had been captured. “As far as I am concerned, the Black Flash is dead and gone,” said the chief.

Those are the only newspaper accounts of the Black Flash that can be found. You might notice that according to The Provincetown Advocate, the Flash was only active for a few weeks, not several years. The more extended and elaborate stories that Citro cites didn't appear in the papers, but were collected by the writer Robert Ellis Cahill for his book New England's Mad and Mysterious Men, which was probably first published in the 1980s. (My copy doesn't have a publication date in it.)

Cahill went to Provincetown and interviewed many locals about the Black Flash. He includes their stories in his book, and has a few accounts that Citro didn't include in Passing Strange. For example, Cahill writes how a pool shark named Eight Ball Eddie was convinced the Black Flash was really a gay man in drag who got his thrills by scaring people. Note: Eight Ball Eddie said all this in much blunter and homophobic language than I'm using.

After sharing his theory with friends, the pool shark finally encountered the Flash on his way home late one night. Eight Ball Eddie described him as large tall man, but definitely a human in a costume, not a monster. He wore a black hood, and had silver eyes that glowed in the dark. Eddie told him to get out of his way, but the Flash didn't. Instead, he lunged at Eddie and slapped him on the face so hard Eddie fell over. The pool shark ran home in panic, pursued by the Flash until he reached his door. The next morning Eddie's face still bore a red handprint.He was less dismissive of the Flash after that!

There were several theories about who (or what) the phantom was. As mentioned above, a few locals thought the Black Flash was a gay tourist who had stayed past the summer season and was terrorizing the town from a shack hidden in the dunes. Others thought he might be teenager John Williams, who was quite fast and a weightlifter. But although Williams was athletic enough to be the Black Flash he was a sailor and often at sea when the Flash appeared.

Francis Marshall, a retired Provincetown police chief, told Cahill that the Black Flash was actually four men who terrorized the town as a hoax. Marshall refused to divulge their names, but said that two of them were already deceased by the time he spoke to Cahill.

Spring-heeled Jack (from Wikipedia)
So perhaps the Black Flash was really just a short-lived hoax whose legend grew in the telling, but there are interesting parallels between the Flash and Spring-heeled Jack, a legendary monster from England. Spring-heeled Jack was first seen in London in 1837; the last sighting was in 1904. Like the Black Flash, Spring-heeled Jack was described as tall human-figure dressed in black, often with a black hood on his head. Some witnesses said he had fiery red eyes, and others said he could spit out blue fire. He was called Spring-heeled Jack because he could jump so high people thought he had springs in his shoes.

All of this is very, very similar to the Black Flash. If you believe in the supernatural, were they the same entity? Or were people just telling similar stories?

I also see some similarities between the Black Flash and the scary clown hysteria that the US experienced last year. In both cases, people reported entities whose sole purpose was just to scare people. They both seem to be people in costumes, but there also seem to be some supernatural elements to the stories as well as human pranksters.

When I go to the Cape this summer I'll keep my eyes peeled for the Black Flash, but hopefully he won't slap me if I see him!

*****

In addition to the sources I cite, you can read more about the Flash in Provincetown Magazine, and in this great blog post by Theo Paijmans. I first wrote about the Black Flash several years ago but wanted to revisit this fascinating story now that I had more information.