Thursday, December 10, 2009

Real Ghost Stories of the 30's

Some of you may know that I got into HPL after studying ghost stories for many years. I probably have 200 book collections of thousands of stories.

In the 1930's, in the midst of the Depression, they sent out of work writers out to collect oral traditions and folklore. Among those assignments were oral narrations of ghost stories in the South.

Most southern US ghost stories have strong traditional elements transplanted from the midlands of England and Scotland, through the Appalachians, and outward as the South grew. New England has somewhat similar traditions, and why Lovecraft heard so many of the "grandmother" tales.

One terrific scholar is Alan Brown, and his Shadows and Cypress is a classic collection.

In this, a certain collector of Texas sure seemed like she was an avid reader of Weird Tales. It's a given that the writer-recorder not only transcribes the oral narrative, but invariably brings a personal flair. Oral traditions are very fluid, and there is not space to write of this here. However, whether it's LeFanu or someone else, once a ghost story is written down it becomes a literary work somewhat divorced from the handwaving, vice inflections, and eye-contact of the original story teller.

Collected on 7 November 1936, this story seemed especially Lovecraftian. I haven't the energy to type the whole story, but I'll extract enough to give you the flavor.

"It was twenty years ago [1916], this past Halloween night, that the thing that made me a wanderer happened... my best Friend and me started out on our horses ... Jerry's horse was gentle old stallion he'd been riding for years ... we decided to go by an old graveyard to see if we could see a ghost ... we were laughing and talking, when out of nowhere ... there came a thousand devils, each squawking and groaning ina different voice. My horse froze in it's tracks, and I couldn't move. All of a sudden, one of the devils made for Jerry's horse, and that gentle stallion went wild. I'll never forget the horror in Jerry's eyes ... with screams and yells, them devils went after him. I don't care what people say. I saw the best friend I ever had in my life torn to pieces while his life's blood covered the gorund. Jerry gave one [final] awful scream, and my horse bolted away ...

"I don't remember much about that wild ride, with a thousand devils at my heels ... them devils killed him, I know they did, 'cause they're still after me. I left that part of the country, and I ain't been back. Still, at night, when I hear Jerry's scream, I know they're coming, so I just up and leave for another part of the country."

Story #168, p. 139, as told to Margaret Beane by H. K. Walters "a vagrant found in a rooming house". Located at WPA records, Houston, Texas.

Sadly. there are no notes of what became of Ms. Beane, and one suspects that Mr. Walters did not long survive the Depression considering his poverty, mental state, and situation.

She had a knack, though. This is not he usual folk ghost story. There are ad libs seemingly right from the pages of Weird Tales if not Lovecraft.

Ghost stories are so well studied that they are assigned mytheme motifs by number. This one contains traditional elements all over the place - "ghost in cemtery", "haunted animal", and so forth. Ghost stories usually play a cultural element of warning, preservation of community history, and reinforcement of community values.

The warning is to respect the cemetery. The preservation was to remember his freind Jerry and his family life of an earlier day before his current trauma. These dramatic elements are not usual to the ghost story, though fear and horror are certainly a dramatic element.

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