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