Sunday, December 4, 2016

Poor Ellen Smith, Haunted by the Grue, and Others

A fine and fun bunch of diverse geocaches I turned up in Winston-Salem yesterday, I can tell you. Everything from an unexpected venture into subterranean darkness; to a couple of healthy trail hikes; to navigating over bodies of water via rocks, logs, and pipes; to finding the site of a Victorian-era murder; to ascending trees. That right there is seriously good geocaching. Ms. B. and friend Beth had gotten together for a day of crafting in Winston, so my plan was to spend the day caching and then meet up with Terry, Beth, and Ms. B. for wine and dinner in the evening. The plan proved perfect.

The most enjoyable cache of the day was surely one called "Haunted by the Grue" (GC6AYAY) which took me to a restaurant near where my brother used to live. To my surprise, I found that the building had been constructed over Silas Creek, which flows beneath it, and the cache itself lay somewhere down below. The hint on the cache page gave me an idea of where I'd need to look, but I made the mistake of going underneath the building on the wrong side of the river. Once I determined my error, rather than take the long way around by clambering back up to ground level, I found a handy-dandy pipe to cross — only slightly precarious — and then managed to lay eyes on the cache readily. This is one of those that may not be for the claustrophobic or those who fear dank, dark spaces and/or subterranean monsters.
Handy-dandy bridge across Peters Creek
Although the cache itself was hidden in traditional manner, "Poor Ellen Smith" (GC6BV1C) took me to the reputed scene of a murder back in Victorian days, the story of which goes roughly as follows: Ellen Smith was a young woman who worked at the Zinzendorf Hotel (which itself had a brief, tragic history) and became enamored of a reckless, hard-drinking, pistol-carrying rake named Peter DeGraff, who may have also worked at the hotel. During their relationship, DeGraff may have fathered a child with her. Predictably, things went south for them, and at one or the other's request, Ellen went to meet DeGraff in the woods behind the hotel (now the site of the cache). DeGraff shot her at close range with his pistol and left her there to die. At first, the authorities did little to apprehend him, until he was reportedly seen in the woods, attempting to bring Ellen back. Supposedly, he was heard to exclaim "Ellen, if you are in heaven, arise. If you are in hell, remain there." DeGraff was eventually captured and sentenced to be hanged. He protested that he was innocent until the end, yet as he went to the gallows, he proclaimed, "I stand here today to receive my just reward. I again say to the people here, beware of bad women and whiskey. Don't put your hands on cards, bad women, and dice. Hear my dying words."
The famous Walking Tree of Dahomey

The hotel Zinzendorf was a massive, four-story wooden structure, completed and opened in early 1892, only to burn to the ground later that same year.

More information about Ellen Smith and Peter DeGraff may be found at "Murder by Gaslight." There is also a recording on the site of a folk song about the murder by Estil C. Ball.

Horror of horrors, at one cache, I lost my pen, which resulted in me having to scratch my initials in the log book of the next with a mud-covered stick. However, on returning to the previous cache, I found not only my original pen but another stuck in the mud along Silas Creek, so, as that pen still worked, I not only came out to the better, I avoided a lifelong loss-of-writing-pen trauma. At another cache, I found what I'm certain must be the famous Walking Tree of Dahomey, pictured above left. And while strolling along a roadway near Winston-Salem State University, I happened upon a single reindeer antler lying in the gutter, the ghastly remains of some hideous crime, almost certainly the work of a grandma, driven by vengeance after Rudolph's merciless mowing down of one of her aged compadres.
Someone call the fire department, please.

The last cache of the day found me up a tree. Not all that high up a tree, but somehow at an angle that made it difficult to twist around that I might lower myself gracefully back to earth. While I pondered my situation, I sat in the limbs typing out my cache notes and online log, all the while watching the sun go down and wondering whether I might ought to call the fire department to rescue me. After some time and effort, I managed to extricate my foot from the branches that were causing my dilemma, and with a stylistic flourish, I dropped to the ground, only to catch my arm on the limb that had caused my foot to hang, abrading my forearm sufficiently to elicit a very minor naughty word. But as my friend Robgso says, "No blood, no fun," so this little bloodletting just meant that the fun was flowing.

The only damper on the day was discovering that some useless piece of shit masquerading as a human being got hold of my bank card information and had been attempting to make a significant number of purchases between here and Durham. Fortunately, the bank caught things pretty quickly, and I'll get the missing money back. I'll be without a bank card for a few days. But it's been scam-and-theft central lately, and I'm of a mind that setting these motherfuckers on fire is way too good for them. May they burn for extended periods, no ifs, ands, or buts.

May your holidays be merry and scam-and-theft free. Don't fall out of any trees.
Reindeer got run over by a grandma.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Eat, Drink, and Be Wary

Whatever its historical significance, Thanksgiving Day, for all of my days, has been reserved for family and dearest friends, a Rainey tradition that I value above most others. Particularly these past few years, as life has become more complicated with age, celebrating Thanksgiving has served as a kind of bleeder valve for the accumulated stress of the year, especially now that dealing with my mom's health situation is taking an ever-increasing percentage of my life. This year especially, politics has become such a consuming, contentiousness thing between friends, neighbors, and families, I think a lot of people need a big time out to evaluate their priorities. So much because of the media — social and otherwise — the country has become a big pressure cooker, and the longer things go on this way, the more violent the release is bound to be. I've resolved to do my best to be as positive an influence as I can be, I don't care who you are or what your politics are. I figure that either we build bridges now, or there's going to be a conflagration somewhere down the line that none of us are going to like. Personally, I'd like to see more good years ahead, for you, for me, for all of us.

Today was the perfect day for focusing on bringing down my blood pressure, which, despite a daily regimen of Losartan HCl, has crept upward to levels I can't sustain (though the amount of butter and salt in some of the day's feast might not have been quite the recipe for vascular health). I'm at my mom's in Martinsville more than frequently, yet I rarely get out and about visiting my old haunts except on holiday visits. So, this evening, after the Big Eat, I hoofed it around some of the woods in the neighborhood that are thankfully still intact after all these decades. As a wee youngster, those woods were a source of both wonders and nightmares, for in those days there were things out there that made strange sounds, that kept me awake at night, that surely watched me from the shadows with anything but benevolent intentions.
A massive, five-trunk Ghostwood that towers
over the surrounding trees

Down in the valley along Indian Trail, there's a meandering creek where I frequently played (and where I once managed to step, barefoot, into the shards of a broken bottle, resulting in a passel of stitches and some of the worst physical pain I've ever known). I encountered my first copperhead down there, which, in its anger at being disturbed, pursued me for what must have been many miles up the street. Around age eight or nine, I happened upon an injured opossum stuck in a mire; at first, I noticed only its thrashing tail, which I thought was a snake. "Snake!" I yelled in warning to my little brother. Then, when I realized it was actually a critter with burning red eyes and great big tuskies sticking out of its mouth, I hollered, "No, it's an armadillo or a rat or a pig or something!" This one didn't like me any better than the copperhead had, but at least it didn't chase me. A bunch of us kids used to play army down there, in an area that was greener and lusher than any of the rest of the woods, and that we called "Vietnam." I wouldn't be surprised if, somewhere down there, the remains of countless plastic model tanks that I set on fire and blew up with firecrackers are buried and awaiting excavation. There's something of gorge across which lots of fallen trees made handy bridges, though if my parents had known we were crossing them at admittedly dangerous heights, they would have killed me dead, such that I could not be writing about them all these many years later. This particular spot we called The Spider Pit, after the ravine in the original King Kong. I'm pretty sure that real dinosaurs lived there.

As a history buff, I would love to know more about the actual location. Along the hillside, paralleling the residential street, there are remains of what was once a road of some sort. In the years before I was born, it was clearly part of a large farm, and even when I was a youngster, there was an old, abandoned horse's stable (I seem to recall the horse's name was Frankie) and a wooden bridge across the creek, both now long gone, although one rotting beam of the old bridge remains. The story went that, as the horse was crossing the bridge, either the bridge collapsed or something caused the horse to fall, but in any event, the horse died. Other kids told me that, at night, you could still hear the horse crying out, and though I listened for it, I never heard any such thing. Alas! Many years ago, either from something I read or was told, I gathered a spur from a rail line ran through this area, which possibly could account for the cut along the hillside. But this is mere speculation, and I'd have to do some serious research to learn about this immediate area in the days before I lived here. The most famous local legend is that of Sam Lions, a slave from pre-Civil War days who escaped a heartless landowner, who eventually had him killed. One of the roads in the neighborhood is named for him. An account may be found here: The Legend of Sam Lion

As I was heading home, I came upon a massive flock of turkey buzzards settling into the trees for the evening behind Lakemont Court. I made a video, though it doesn't capture the magnitude of the sound they made — hundreds and hundreds of the huge scavengers, their wings beating and rustling, the trees alive with them, limbs thrashing beneath the weight of the interlopers. If one weren't aware of what was actually making that noise, one might think the sky was falling.

Thus draws another Thanksgiving Day to its close — gratifying, relaxing, stimulating. And it's put me right where I needed to be to get to work on my next terror tale. Scary? You betcha.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.
All that remains of Frankie's Bridge. In all my years here, unfortunately, I never heard
the crying of a ghostly horse.
The area that I used to call "The Spider Pit," after the ravine scene in King Kong. There were always trees fallen
across the gorge — obviously not the same ones seen here, 40+ years later.
All that remains of what might have been a road or rail bed from the days long before I was born.
The mouth of a little underground channel at the creek along Indian Trail

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Old Farts at the Center of the Earth

Evil Rodan in the deep, dark underground

It's been many moons since Team Old Fart — Rob "Robgso," Robbin "Rtmlee" (a.k.a. "Yoda Rob"), Scott "Diefenbaker," and Old Rodan — got together for big a day of geocaching. But at long last, get together we did, and today we hit the northern Chapel Hill area, primarily to get in some hiking and caching at Hollow Rock Park, but afterward figuring to go hunting wherever the wind blew us. Happily, that wind (quite a brisk one) blew us a) into the depths of the earth, and b) to Dickey's BBQ Pit for lunch. We had not really pre-planned an underground venture, although I had noted there were a couple such caches in close proximity to the park — at least one of which I had visited in my earliest days of geocaching, before I had any idea there might be caches hidden in the drains, culverts, and hidden passages deep below ground. Here, the hider is one who is known to possess an exceptionally evil mind (Christian "Vortexecho," sometimes called "Gone2Far"), and the two we found today, while enjoyable and even a little challenging, were far from his most insane (see "Pandora's Box" for a fine example of his devilish mind at work). So after our hike, we decided to see what we could see by the lights of our puny little flashlights in the depths of the earth.
Looking down from the cache at "Concrete Tomb"

"Concrete Tomb" (GC1JZBX) was the first of our subterranean targets. The method of accessing this one became quickly apparent, and getting into the pipe without falling into some deep water proved to be a challenge that a casual onlooker probably would have found hysterical. Once inside, it was not far to ground zero, but snagging the cache itself required a relatively minor physical challenge that, had it gone wrong, likely would have resulted in either extreme wetness or a concussion. Nothing so untoward happened, but I was a little nonplussed when I pulled the container from its hiding place and Diefenbaker, with a nasty chuckle, told me I had just missed grabbing a rather sizeable spider that was lurking behind the cache. Whoopee shit, Mr. D. Anyway, getting back out involved something of a reprise of the maneuver we used to get inside, only in reverse, and I credit Yoda Rob's timely presence that prevented me swamping myself in the swamp.
Diefenbaker signs the log at
"I'll Show You Evil!"

It was back in 2008 that I first visited "I'll Show You Evil!" (GC1FBNG), and I spent lord knows how long poking around a sealed manhole cover, thinking there must be a brilliantly camouflaged container somewhere around it. Nope. Not around it — somewhere under it. But the only way to access the passage is to find the pipe that leads to it. Here, that could have been one excruciating challenge, had not Mr. Lee already experienced the joy of this particular evil hide. He led us to where we needed to be, and we knew by way of our GPS coordinates that we were in for a lengthy underground journey. Now, Old Robgso has never developed a fondness for the underground cache set, and initially it was his intention to sit it out while the rest of us went culvert diving. But peer pressure can be a powerful thing, and by the time we hunched ourselves over and crept into the pipe, Old Rob was with us. Now, I won't come out and say there followed a lot of swearing, caterwauling, and peeing of drawers, but there might have followed a lot of swearing, caterwauling, and peeing of drawers. Regardless, by the time we reached our destination, it wouldn't be unfair to say that Old Rob was enjoying himself. I've done enough of these underground hides that I'm relatively comfortable in the dark depths, but this one was of sufficient length to require a couple of rest stops, and there were sounds in the distance that made us think a) there might be a monster in there with us or b) there might be a monster in there with us. Clearly, since I'm here composing this account, the monster didn't get us, but the thing I glimpsed when I looked back, just before exiting the pipe, appeared not a little bit friendly and even less human.*

As I mentioned above, the ill wind that blew us underground also blew us right to Dickey's BBQ Pit for lunch, and a fine lunch of beef brisket and onion tanglers it was. For a chain restaurant, Dickey's pretty damn well rocks.

We picked up a good many other caches over the course of the day, but it was the challenge of the underground that made it all quite special. That, and the great company of old farts, who have been much missed on recent caching excursions. Old Farts Unite!

*I realized later that this was just Diefenbaker.
Mad men
L: What do you suppose that is up there? R: And the old man swore he'd never cache in such a place!
Rob and Rob taking a break from the rigors of traveling through the pipe — uphill, both ways.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Arts, Crafts, Caching, and Cowfish

Old Rodan amid the ruins of some mysterious, ancient 20th-century civilization
As a respite from the political madness in the aftermath of the November 11 election, Ms. B. and I ventured forth to Raleigh at the crack of dawn this morning, she for an arts-and-crafts seminar she's been wanting to take, and I for some geocaching, topped off with possibly the strangest lunch I've ever eaten at Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar and then some wine at Vinos Finos. Didn't find all that many caches — several were clearly gone after some serious flooding a while back, and I spent a good while on ill-fated hunts for a couple of very difficult ones — but I did get in some very enjoyable hiking in a few different wooded areas in north Raleigh. Somewhere along the line, I managed to shed the tiniest amount of blood, so I guess by Robgso's definition of fun, I had me some.
Not much sense of scale in this photo,
but this wall of boulders, with a number
of bore holes in them, along the Crabtree
Creek Trail, is quite huge

Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar is an interesting little joint, offering all kinds of strange fusion dishes (known as "burgushi") featuring sushi and other Asian treats blended with traditional American burgers and general comfort food. I had "Nature Boy's WOOOOO-shi BuffalOOOOO-shi Roll," consisting of sautéed chipotle bison, fried green tomato, grilled onions, feta cheese, and tempura flakes, topped with fresh green tomato, chipotle aioli, diced tomato, red onion, and jalapeño pepper. Yeah, it was good, not something I'd want very frequently, though. Ms. B. ordered "The Taste Explosion Roll," with beef, applewood bacon, jalapeños, spicy mayo, and tempura flakes, topped with Roma tomato, pepper jack cheese, and cashew cilantro pesto. We swapped a few pieces, and I might have actually preferred hers.

Happily, with all the reports of threats and attacks against minorities of every sort, in Raleigh, we saw people of every color, young, old, some no doubt gay, perhaps a few transgender folks, all going on about their business, playing with their kids, generally making the world move as it ought. I hope this will continue to be the norm in America.

Thank you very much and good-night.
A little waterfall at Lassiter Mill Park
Entertaining structures in a green area near Eastgate Park
Lunch — a bison sushi roll

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Damned Rodan's Doomsday Chicken Salad

It's been some time since I've posted a recipe, and since I just whipped up what is easily the best chicken salad I've ever et, perhaps it's time I did. Naturally, with a spur-of-the-moment concoction such this, all kinds of variations are possible, so I'll just share with you How I Did It. This recipe makes about two large sandwiches; adjust amounts accordingly.

WHAT YOU NEED:
Meat from one roasted chicken breast, shredded
Hard-boiled egg, chopped
Large stalk of celery, diced
1/4 medium yellow onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped very fine
1/4 cup chopped green olives
1/2 Carolina Reaper pepper, chopped very fine (for peppers of lesser megatonnage,
     such as habanero, use a whole pepper)
Tbsp mayonnaise
Tbsp cracked pepper Ranch dressing
Tsp sriracha (or chili garlic sauce)
Bread for two sandwiches (I prefer Arnold honey wheat sandwich thins)
Dash cracked black pepper
Dash celery salt
Dash garlic salt

WHAT YOU DO:
Mix ingredients together and dump on your bread, preferably with a couple of lettuce leaves to help cool things. Consume with glee, and then run around the neighborhood screaming, "MOTHER OF GOD, what have I done?"

You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Secret History of Twin Peaks


I've been a knocked-out Twin Peaks geek since I sat in my living room on April 8, 1990, got halfway through the pilot, and blurted out to whoever was in the room with me, "This is the best damn television show I've ever seen." After having watched the original two seasons and the follow-up/prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, countless times over, my opinion has changed little. While the critical consensus that the show went off the rails after the first half of the second season is anything but ill-founded, even those episodes still engage, and the second-season finale, directed by David Lynch, is a mind-blowing masterpiece. And yes, damn those cliff-hangers, yet and still it was the not knowing that sparked so much speculation about the show — more specifically, about the characters and their fates — and spurred fan interest that has only blossomed over the decades. My view of Fire Walk With Me also bucks the majority opinion that it was a train wreck featuring a few scattered moments of brilliance. No ma'am, the more times I watch that film, the more I find to dissect, to revel in, to question, to be glad in not knowing all the answers. It's David Lynch doing what David Lynch does best, and oh, my lord, would I ever love to see a director's cut of this monster. Of course I am all revved for the Showtime revival set for next year; at the moment, I don't have Showtime, but there is always a way.

I picked up The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost, the show's co-creator, knowing little about the book, only that it fills in some gaps while leaving many unaddressed, and that it ostensibly sets up some plot points and possible characterizations for the upcoming series. For a book like this, reviewing it without spoilers is a tricky prospect, so if you proceed, you may encounter them. Be on your guard.

Though it's called "a novel," the book is structured as a dossier compiled by an individual known as "The Archivist," who clearly has connections to both Twin Peaks and certain government agencies (fans of the show will almost certainly guess his/her identity quickly). In turn, the dossier is being investigated by an FBI agent, whose hand is shown primarily in the copious footnotes that accompany the text. The documents in question include top secret government papers, personal correspondence and diaries, excerpts from local news stories, transcripts of interviews, and more. From these documents, a picture of the strange forces at work in and around Twin Peaks begins to take shape, starting in the earliest days of the nation, with fact and fiction intermingling so that one is barely recognizable from the other. From writings by explorers Lewis and Clark, we learn of the discovery of two mountains near a river with a great waterfall, a small circle of sycamores, and a mysterious cave. A fair portion of the book focuses on the plight of the Nez Perce tribe in the area and their interactions with both the US government and those same otherworldly forces first encountered by Lewis and Clark. From there, the mysterious 1947 incidents at Roswell, NM, occupy a significant portion of the novel's word count, tying into the alluring but little-explored events in the series that involved Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis).
Doug Milford after joining
the US Army, circa 1941

Throughout the novel, we do get to discover more about some of the local personalities that were prominent in the series, with the most attention paid to Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean); Deputy Tommy (Hawk) Hill (Michael Horse); Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn); Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie); Josey Packard (Joan Chen); Mayor Dwayne Milford (John Boylan); Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill); Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie); Margaret Coulson, a.k.a. "The Log Lady" (Catherine Coulson); Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton, from Fire Walk With Me); and others, including relevant information about their parents, siblings, and various significant family members. Perhaps the most surprising revelation of character involves the mayor's brother, Doug Milford (Tony Jay ), who, in the show, was the most minor of minor players, known primarily as the publisher of the town newspaper (The Twin Peaks Post) and the ill-fated husband of vixen Lana Buddig (Robyn Lively). In The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Doug Milford comes out front and center, with author Frost building a complex, lifelong history for him that, within the context of the TV series, one would never have suspected (very possibly the reason Frost chose this particular character to imbue with such dramatic significance). At first, Frost's decision to center the story on Doug Milford didn't ring quite true, but over the course of the story, that focus became less jarring and more comprehensible, especially as its ultimate scope became apparent.

The murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and the fate of her father, Leland (Ray Wise), are granted little more than passing mention near the end of the book, but given that the first season and a half of the series — plus Fire Walk With Me — revolved almost entirely around that mystery, further delving into the superficial facts of it here would have seemed redundant. Happily, however, a number of loose ends from the series are given closure, such as the outcome of the explosion in the bank at which Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn), Pete Martell (Jack Nance), and Andrew Packard (Dan O'Herlihy) were present. We have a tribute to the Log Lady, ostensibly for the Twin Peaks Post, as lovingly rendered as if it were intended for the late actress who played her, Catherine Coulson.
Page from the journal of explorer Wayne Chance,
circa 1875, showing a rendering of the map
discovered on the wall of Owl Cave

The most intriguing aspects of The Secret History of Twin Peaks are the back stories for the characters that offer insight into their personalities that may or may not have been exposed during the series' run, and the explorations of outré events related to but not necessarily showcased in the series. Given the book's focus on mysteries and secrets, which include but are not limited to Twin Peaks, geographically and thematically, one might expect more delving into the Black Lodge and its inhabitants, yet these are given relatively little coverage. However, at the end of the book, the Archivist's conclusions regarding universal mysteries absolutely encompass the essence of the Lodge, and in fact open the way for continued exploration, likely to be set up in the upcoming Showtime series.

To be sure, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is not aimed at the casual reader, but rather to those geeks such as myself who have made the show not just a source of entertainment but a passion. Given Twin Peaks' structure, open to so much individual interpretation, it is natural that this book might not jive with conclusions drawn by many fans over the 25 years since the show aired. But with this book, Mark Frost has done a commendable job drawing fans back into the town, the characters, the mysteries of Twin Peaks. I blazed through the book cover to cover, but there's enough material within to warrant a revisit, especially in that — just like the series — repeated visits may reveal secrets missed in the initial experience.

The audio book features members of the cast — including Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper), Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Lawrence Jacoby), Michael Horse (Deputy Hawk), Chris Mulkey (Hank Jennings), David Patrick Kelly (Jerry Horne), Amy Shiels, James Morrison, Robert Knepper, and Annie Wersching — narrating passages that pertain to the characters they played (or will play). That, as well, may be a purchase worth making.

Without question, I will be revisiting this book, perhaps as often as I have revisited the series itself. Four and a half out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
The Twin Peaks sign for the upcoming Showtime series. Twin Peaks' actual population is supposed to be 5,120—
the extra digit is explained away as a "misprint." In reality, the network insisted that the show appear to take place
in a larger town as, in 1990, since it felt audiences wouldn't be receptive to another series set in a small town.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Haunted for Halloween


Supernatural hauntings are a source of endless fascination for me. Not that I even remotely believe in ghosts, marauding spirits, demons, or other inhuman entities, but there's something about the prospect of them that have, since I was a little kid, sent the most wonderful shiver down my spine. I generally prefer stories rooted in the supernatural to those based on the mundane, regardless of twists, turns, and degrees of probability. It's when the improbability of the supernatural is portrayed as ultimately believable that I most tend to stand up and take notice.

A good many years ago, I found myself watching a TV movie called The Haunted with my ex-wife, initially drawn in because it starred Jeffrey DeMunn, whom I've always admired as a character actor. At first, I took it to be just another low-budget, cringe-worthy melodrama, the kind that dominated the Lifetime network and its ilk in the 1990s. But as I continued to watch, I found myself feeling less contemptuous and more unsettled. And when it comes to movies, unsettling is a pretty admirable quality.

The story, supposedly based on actual events, is commonplace enough: the Smurl family moves into a new home and strange things begin happening to them, such as household items disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, unplugged appliances catching fire, light fixtures crashing down on unsuspecting children, and — finally — formless apparitions frightening family members and then vanishing. At first, the weirdest events only happen in Janet Smurl's (Sally Kirkland) presence, so that her husband, Jack (DeMunn), is initially skeptical. But one night, while they're lying in bed, Janet hears whispered voices seemingly coming from her pillow, and when Jack lays his head on her pillow, he hears them as well. Being devout Catholics, they seek help from their church, but the best that good Father Larson (John O'Leary) can offer them is marriage counseling and an offer to bless their house. He comes to perform his blessing ritual, only to discover there actually is some dark presence in the house. After reporting his finding to the church, he is forced to inform the Smurls, with some obvious personal relief, that the bishop will not allow him to help them with their spirit problem.

Not knowing where else to turn, the Smurls make contact with paranormal investigators Ed (Stephen Markle) and Lorraine Warren (Diane Baker), who agree to check out their claims. The Warrens, who came to prominence as investigators in the case of The Amityville Horror (and have since appeared in numerous other fiction-based films, such as The Conjuring and Annabelle) confirm the Smurls's worst nightmare — that an actual demon has latched onto them with the intent of destroying the family. The Warrens attempt to drive the demon and its minions out, but this endeavor appears only to anger the supernatural visitor, for after a brief period of silence, just long enough to make the Smurls believe it has been defeated, the entity returns with a vengeance.

A sympathetic priest from an Episcopal church attempts a full-fledged exorcism, but this attempt also backfires. Having alerted the press to their plight — in hopes of finding someone who can vanquish the force that seems determined to overwhelm them — the Smurls are dismayed when, instead of assistance, all they receive is an onslaught of reporters, cranks, and vandals, who allow them not a moment's peace. At last, a group from the Sacred Heart Society comes for a visit and, in a vast show of love and affection for the family, appears to be successful in driving away the evil spirits.

The Smurls, no longer able to live in their house due to endless invasions of their privacy, move to a new community, seemingly free from any further supernatural torment. As they are settling into their new house, however, they receive a rude reminder that escaping a demon's wrath may not be as easy as all that.
Jack (Jeffrey Demunn) and Janet Smurl (Sally Kirkland)
The fact that The Haunted doesn't rely on a big-budget special effects or lavish sets works measurably in its favor. Over the first hour of the movie, tension rises because of the increasing transformation of the familiar and safe into the unfamiliar and dangerous. One of the best moments in the movie is an early scene of Janet hearing the voice of her mother-in-law, Mary (Louise Latham), calling her from another room. When Janet replies that she is in the kitchen, the voice calls out again, louder and more plaintive. Impatient, Janet repeats her call to her mother-in-law, but now Mary's voice comes from inside the otherwise empty room. A reprise of this scene at the end of the film makes for perhaps an even more chilling effect, since we now understand the disturbing significance of this fakery.

Another effective scene takes place in the Smurls's bedroom, while they are asleep. Janet wakes up hearing whispering voices, seemingly from her pillow. At first incredulous, Jack insists that she is merely imagining things, but when he places his head on her pillow and a soft voice whispers something indecipherable to him, he reacts with near-violent fear. Shortly afterward, Janet feels cold fingers touching her leg. Jack places his leg over hers and then he feels the questing fingers, prompting another strong, fearful reaction.

The first apparition of the demonic force is its best — it's merely a dark, formless shadow that creeps across the screen, only briefly revealing contours that appear more or less human. In a couple of scenes, we see very typical, translucent human figures that are not particularly scary, though it's rather refreshing, even for the film's time, that they are not accompanied by garish light shows or other spectacular, over-the-top special effects. The only true physical manifestation of the entity comes when a rather maniacal-looking young woman spontaneously appears on the stairway and assaults Jack Smurl. The woman transforms into a heavyset, ogre-like brute who seems intent on sexually molesting a disbelieving Jack.

The actors in the production are uniformly convincing, with DeMunn and Kirkland standing out in their parts (Kirkland received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in this movie, though she lost to Judy Davis for One Against the Wind). Granted, the whiter-than-white, 1980s middle-class characters might ring less true for today's audiences than they did at the time, but the verisimilitude of characters, setting, and events in The Haunted outshines that of most far bigger productions of similar theme, such as The Conjuring and Annabelle, which I mentioned above. These characters are people you know — perhaps they're your family — and the fact they are not exaggerated, as is too often the case, makes them both believable and sympathetic, traits too rare in too many horror movies. You don't have to be religious — or a believer at all — to understand the natural compulsion for these people to seek assistance from the church, which proves itself not only impotent but irrelevant. Even paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who may in real life be seen only as opportunistic frauds, are portrayed with respect and depth, which for the purposes of this fiction adds another, agreeable layer of verisimilitude.

The Haunted was based on the book by the Warrens, along with Jack Smurl and Robert Curran, supposedly the true chronicle of events at the Smurl house. I don't believe the movie is available on DVD, though it can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.

The Haunted makes for some mighty fine Halloween viewing, I can tell you. Four out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis (at least one of which I am currently due for).
The first apparition of the demon — a dark, moving stain in the air that passes through walls
A face only a mugger could love? A sex-starved demon appears to menace hapless Jack Smurl.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Haunting of Stonewall (Episode 4)

Every fall season, the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia are subject to some extremely frightening visitors — specifically, Ms. B. and me —  and this year we made another of our Halloween pilgrimages to Stonewall Bed & Breakfast, not far from Floyd, VA, that we might spend a couple of nights in the cozy, secluded View Cabin, pictured above, some distance up a winding trail from the main house. If I'm counting right, this was our fourth visit, all but one of which have been during the Halloween season — our second was over New Year's 2011/2012 (see "Stonewalled") — and there's no better place to spend our favorite holiday than in the remote, spooky woods, with several scary movies at our disposal. The cabin itself is a rustic little place: just a single room with a bed, a wood stove, TV and DVD player, and a nearby outhouse for taking care of personal business. Proprietors Scott and Sally Truslow do a wonderful job of managing the property, providing the best, most opulent breakfast spreads one could imagine, a full bathroom for those times you might prefer not-so-primitive facilities, and several dogs and cats that make you feel like one of the family. I hope it is not sad news for us that Scott and Sally are looking to retire and sell the place in the not-too-distant future, as they've been at it for quite a long while. It would be great if someone should purchase and maintain the place so we can continue our favorite tradition, but for now we must leave that for the future to decide.

Kimberly and I headed out early on Friday, 10/28, and after stopping for a geocache near the NC/VA state line, we made our way to Villa Appalaccia on the Blue Ridge Parkway for some first-rate local wine and a picnic lunch. It would not be out of line to say the weather proved a little too perfect — for our entire sojourn, we suffered the most ungodly, un-Halloweenish weather I have ever experienced, with nothing but clear, sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s. Awful, just awful for this time of year. Give us chilly days and nights, with lots of fall colors and the distinctive smell of autumn. Except for the relatively cool nights, this weekend was just another few days of summer. Bah, humbug, bunkum, and tommyrot.
The hidden terrace at Villa Appalaccia Winery
Old fellow at overlook above Rock Castle Gorge on the Blue Ridge Parkway

For our first evening's dinner, we hied our asses to Chateau Morrisette, several miles down the Parkway, for some all-around excellent fare, with a bottle of their Archival I red blend, bison meat loaf with smashed potatoes and collard greens for me, wild mushroom and arugula flatbread for Ms. B, topped off with a glass of their rather potent Heritage port wine. Upon our return to the cabin, for some light entertainment, we put on The Houses October Built, about a group of thrill seekers searching for the most extreme haunted attraction in the country. Not exactly a modern classic, but props to the movie makers for offering a few genuinely chilling scenes and disturbing characters. Most apt, given the current spate of supposed creepy clown sightings, that one of the scariest characters in the movie was indeed a clown.

The next morning, following one of Scott's classic breakfasts featuring eggs, sausage, broccoli quiche, biscuits, coffee, and orange juice, Ms. B. and I decided to work off at least the orange juice with a long hike through Rock Castle Gorge, which we've done several times in the past, though this time, sadly for me, there was no geocaching involved in the gorge itself, since I have already claimed all those that have been placed there (happily, there were a couple of other caches in the vicinity to hunt, which I did find, and we met a pair of friendly local geocachers in the process). Kimberly and I did put a couple of calories back on when we stopped for a trail lunch, comprising the remains of the previous day's chicken salad picnic. One of my favorite locations along the trail is the Austin House, the only private property remaining in the gorge, exactly one century old this year, and still inhabited by family members of its builder. The place truly looks to be straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness," but I recently based a short story of my own, titled "Willow Bend," on this precise location. Yes, rest assured that I will post a notice if and when it gets picked up and published. Here's hoping, as I believe it turned out to be an effective, rather eerie ghost story. I finished it just a couple of weeks ago, anticipating visiting the actual location again.
On the trail in Rock Castle Gorge

Following the gorgeous gorge hike — in unseasonable, disagreeable 80-degree temperatures — we returned to the cabin and spent a leisurely afternoon on the premises, me banging on me guitar, Kim working on some pen-and-ink and watercolor renderings until the sun went down, when we built ourselves a blazing hot campfire (also made damn near disagreeable by the ugly temps of the day) and roasted hot dogs and marshmallows — mind you, just to add a few extra calories after having been so drained of these things by our strenuous hike. To help bring us back into the Halloween spirit, for our evening viewing we put on It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Guillermo Del Toro's The Orphanage, which neither of us had seen. While the latter film wasn't particularly scary, it was quite well done and possessed of eerie overtones that qualified it as a decent choice for Halloween viewing.

I might mention here that, as with past visits to Stonewall, we have been advised to make noise when on the trail hiking to and from the cabin, as bears are sometimes known to frequent the area. Well, true to our established form, we warned potential interlopers of our presence by occasionally hollering "Bear!", which for the most part seemed to keep them away. I did see one bear hanging around yesterday afternoon, though. He was very small, gray, with a fuzzy tail, and appeared to be enjoying himself leaping from tree to tree, but since he never really bothered us, I didn't begrudge him his fun. Now, sometime during last night, Kim rolled over and her toenails bit into my leg, at which point I sat up and yelled "Bear!", figuring it was the only sensible thing to do. Eventually, I went back to sleep, but I was kind of restless for the rest of the night as I never knew whether I might be attacked and mauled yet again. As you may infer, the View Cabin, as nice as it may be, doesn't come without its unique dangers.

This morning, Scott outdid himself with breakfast — eggs, bacon, bacon & broccoli quiche, pancakes, apple cobbler, more orange juice and coffee. Sadly, it was that time again, to pack up and head back to Greensboro. Coming home, I satisfied myself with hunting a single cache on the aptly named Goblintown Creek Road, though the cache itself was not particularly scary. Unless to you birdhouses are scary, and then it would be quite the fright.

Our Halloween retreat for another year is ended, though there's still another day before actual big event. I will be celebrating hard tonight, working in as many scary things as I can before it's all over and done with. Be afraid, my friends; be slightly afraid.

And don't forget to yell "Bear!"
In the foreground, a little rock cairn in Rock Castle Creek, a second one visible in the distance
The Austin House in Rock Castle Gorge, ostensibly the setting for my new ghost story, "Willow Bend."
A spectacular view from Rocky Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Our parting view of the cabin this morning, a place at which I hope to yell "Bear!" again very soon.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Creepy Company

It's always good to see people making new friends, and the Sandy Level Creep seems to attract some mighty fine company. A while back, after minding the Axton Road all by his lonesome for several years, a very attractive and very horny little devil showed up to assist. When I passed by him this morning, he'd been joined by yet another happy chap, and just in time for Halloween!

I noticed a FOR SALE sign on the property — I do so hope this does not mean the end of the Sandy Level Creep. He and his buddies have given me many smiles in recent years, and I'd hate to see him move to new digs. Stick around, Sandy Level Creep (and friends)!

Friday, October 21, 2016

I Can Dare Myself


I was looking up some lyrics the other day, and on one online forum or another, I came upon some a singularly bemusing comment about a song I'm especially fond of — "By My Side," from Godspell. The spiritual message of the production aside, it really is a beautiful piece of music, with lyrics (written by original cast member Peggy Gordon, prior to the soundtrack being composed by Stephen Schwartz) that are not directly taken from Biblical narrative, like most of the rest of the production. The lyrics are not what I would call opaque — from my first listening as a teenager, it seemed pretty clear what they were about. But the comment in question came from an individual who believed that messages in lyrics (and, by extrapolation, one could conclude from literature in general) ought to be straightforward and easy to understand, rather than open to various interpretations.

I had to re-read the comment to make sure I hadn't misinterpreted it. Nope. And though the comments in the forum may have been many years old, I found it all too tempting to jump in and offer my two cents' worth. So, as my consolation, I'll offer my two cents here instead, if you've a mind to bear with me.

It is a creator not spelling out every detail, spurring the audience to engage its collective imagination, its intuitive senses, its powers of deduction, thus becoming an interactive player in the experience, that makes a work transcendent. Multidimensional. Not flat, even. Music, fiction, movies... it makes no never mind. In the realm of dark literature, T.E.D. Klein, in his collection Dark Gods, offers several tales that suggest he knows exactly what's happening and why — but it's up to the reader to fill in the blanks he intentionally leaves. If you've ever read a word of this blog or any of my posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc., you might infer that I'm a David Lynch fan. You would be correct. There are volumes of analyses of Lynch's work out there, and I've spent more time and energy than ought to be allowed by law watching, re-watching, reading about, and mentally wrestling with his films. (The prospect of a new incarnation of Twin Peaks is, to me, fucking orgasmic.)

No, I don't always want to have to work a puzzle when I'm reading or listening or watching something for pure enjoyment. But the idea that complex themes ought to be spelled out, that a work should leave little to naught left to the imagination, or that — God forbid — one might have to engage in critical analysis, draw individual conclusions, or deduce something altogether different than the next consumer, well... perhaps you can infer my opinion.

This attitude, this laziness, is symptomatic of a consumer base accustomed to being spoon fed every idea in miniscule, easy-to-digest doses via memes, click-bait headlines, and editorials masquerading as news. It's the heyday of short-attention-span theater. In the same vein as the original example of shallow thinking, I can't count how many times I've seen thoughtful, well-researched, fact-based editorials summarily dismissed — almost exclusively by adherents to a socially conservative school of thought — with this quip: "Too long, didn't read." My god, you dolts. You are our downfall.

As an author, I aspire to engage readers of superior intellect, those with keen powers of insight, those who might even say, "you dink, you have some ways to go, for your prose is shallow." Yeah, that can be harsh. But one doesn't grow without challenge. And if you're not daring to grow, you're stagnating, and if you're stagnating, you may be starting to reek. Let none of us do this thing.

I shall call the pebble Dare.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Getting the Boot

Team Two and a Half Men

Actually, we only got part of the boot. The geoart you see in the photo is in Wake County, NC, along the American Tobacco Trail. To get the coordinates for each individual cache in the boot print pattern, you must answer a question on the cache listing page about Wake County Parks. Once done, you hike out the trail to claim the caches. There are 40 caches in the pattern, and today, Rob "Robgso," Debbie "Cupdaisy," and Old Man Rodan headed out after a bunch of them. We picked up a dozen in the series, as well as a fair number of other caches along the trail. It was another damn near 80-degree day in October, so we got pretty warm out there, but at the end of it all, we'd put in about six miles, with numerous side trips and some backtracking (thanks to old people leaving their hiking sticks behind); logged 18 caches; and found things like jewel-shelled turtles, giant spiders, horses in pine trees, and pigs in lamp posts.

Most notably, on our journey, we engaged ourselves in a spirited discourse about whether a hissy fit or a conniption ranks higher in the hierarchy of tantrums. We fairly readily came to the conclusion that the conniption is certainly of higher caliber than the mere hissy fit, and our results were confirmed by a Google search, which indicated the question was actually settled about nine years ago. Well, sometimes there's something to be said for reinventing the wheel.

Our final destination before returning home was Carolina Brewery in Pittsboro, where we procured satisfying vittles and liquid refreshment. While I was driving us back, I told Rob that if I fell asleep to wake me up when we got home. Happily, he did this thing.
Big.
A very old tobacco barn out in the woods, not far off the trail
Sparkly sea turtle in the woods
L: Cupdaisy finds a butterfly; R: a long stretch of the American Tobacco Trail
Little bacons in a lightpole