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Perhaps no other summertime tradition is more honored than the telling of a good ghost story around the campfire. It knows no ethnic or political boundaries. It doesn't care what type of music you listen to, or how much money you make. It is just what it is: a momentary thrill at campfire's edge, a world caught between the flame and night's pervading ink. This summer, turn the cell phone off and have a go at a good ghost story. There's nothing like it.

Haints, Witches, and Boogers: Tales from Upper East Tennessee
by Charles Edwin Price
John F. Blair, 2004
ISBN: 0-89587-093-2
$14.95, 104 pp

Life Imitates Art
Upon cracking open Charles Edwin Price's Haints, Witches, and Boogers: Tales from Upper East Tennessee, I am immediately reminded of another title: 10 Haunted Hotels. A fictional collection of haunted B&Bs, gathered together by Mike Enslin (played by John Cusack in 2007's 1408, a film based on the short story by Stephen King), an author/researcher of the paranormal. (He's also a skeptic, assigning skulls - one to ten - based on the "shiver" factor of each property, who ends up a scared witless believer himself by movie's end.) Which is not to say Price's book was put together to fill beds in B&Bs that had long ago been passed over by the Interstate. On the contrary. But Price's research of the stories in Haints is much like Enslins in 1408. That is, he goes to the place where the haunting has occurred and checks out the history of the place for himself. Haints doesn't as much provide a collection of ghost stories as it does the historical documentation behind upper east Tennessee's popular stories, lore and legends of hauntings.

Working closely with folklorists at Eastern Tennessee State University's Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, Price has cobbled together a book of twenty of Upper East Tennessee's most popular and enduring ghost stories, filling each with historical context that goes miles in explaining how the hauntings came to be. No stranger to America's Civil War, some of Tennessee's most popular hauntings involve soldiers who are believed to linger to this day where they fell in battle over 150 years ago.

Hauntings vs. Visitations
While theories differ on what ghosts are - be it energy, souls of the dead, or too much moonshine - the late, great expert on paranormal phenomena, Sylvia Browne, divided sightings into two categories: hauntings and visitations. In her book Visits From the Afterlife (Dutton, $25.95) she explains visitations as visits from deceased loved ones who stop by to knock over a flowerpot as a means of saying Hello, while hauntings happen when the soul of a person is "stuck" here because they don't know they're dead. Often, according to Browne, they just need permission to cross over.

Haints, Witches, and Boogers may not be the spooky ghost story genre its title suggests, yet Price's accounting of the sightings and their histories is fascinating stuff. Whether it be the ghosts (plural) of the Nolichucky River (including a phantom steed); the ride-hitching ghost of Stony Creek; or the innumerable phantoms who inhabit the campus of Eastern Tennessee State University, there's more than enough in this slim volume to grab and hold the reader's attention. We give it ten skulls.

Tales of Edgar Allan Poe
by Edgar Allan Poe
Western Publishing Co., 1972
Illustrated by Jerry E. Johnson
$1.00, 213 pp

As in comedy, suspense is all about timing. Usually, it involves a race against time. Whether it be getting the ingenue untied from the tracks before the train barrels over her, or waiting for a jury to determine the fate of a defendant, timing is crucial.

      "Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action for no other reason than that he knows he should not?"

Tales of Edgar Allan Poe contains eleven short stories by the master of suspense. Written in the nineteenth century, Poe employs a writing style that feels decidedly Old World. He borrows terms archaic by today's standards, and sets them to a meter that is pure bliss to read aloud. The result is a lyricism largely gone missing in publishing today:
    We had protracted our sitting far into the night, and I had at length effected the maneuver of getting Glendinning as my sole antagonist. The game, too, was my favorite, ecarte'. The rest of the company, interested in the extent of our play, had abandoned their own cards and were standing around us as spectators. The parvenu, who had been induced by my artifices in the early part of the evening to drink deeply, now shuffled, dealt, and played with a wild nervousness of manner for which his intoxication, I thought, might partially but could not altogether account.
Whether writing from the perspective of a convicted felon awaiting execution (The Black Cat), or about pestilence (The Masque of the Red Death), Poe uses the sense of time - more specifically, the sense of limited time - to ultimate effect. He often goes so far as to employ physical representations of time within his stories, as if to emphasize its importance to the plot.

In The Telltale Heart, it is the beating of a heart, "a low, dull, quick sound - much such a sound a watch makes when enveloped in cotton," that builds suspense, ultimately providing the countdown to the narrator's own destruction. A swinging pendulum - with a deadly blade attached - is employed in The Pit and the Pendulum. As the pendulum swings above its intended victim, lowering ever so slowly with each swing, the story's protagonist, bound in ropes, is able to calculate how much time he has left before he is either sliced to shreds, or accomplishes an escape. While in A Descent into the Maelstrom, it is the clockwork of the tides that builds the tension, ticking off the seconds 'til certain doom while simultaneously presenting a hair's breadth hope of redemption. Poe's suspense is not of the Hollywood blockbuster's, filled with fetishly attired superheroes engaged in non-stop action in a shameless attempt to sell Happy Meals. His suspense builds out of the human psyche. His characters are largely unremarkable, except for their heinous deeds. They appeal to us not for their heroics, but for their abject criminality, representing to us a truth regarding our own humanity we're not readily acknowledging of. As the protagonist of The Black Cat observed:

    Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action for no other reason than that he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is law, merely because we understand it to be such?
The old axiom "Write what you know" may apply here. Not to say Poe knew murder (a predominant subject of his tales), pestilence, or ghosts, but he seems to have had a handle on the human condition. And as TALES demonstrates, he definitely knew a thing or two about timing when it came to suspense.

posted 07/27/23