Please welcome guest book reviewer Roberta Schultz. Schultz is a singer with the trio, Raison D’Etre, and a Teaching Artist and Performing Artist on the Kentucky Arts Council’s rosters. Her review of the recently published ‘Kentucky Hauntings’ was originally aired on Cincinnati NPR affiliate WVXU in October.
While the interest in ghost stories seems to spike around Halloween, story telling couple Roberta Simpson Brown and Lonnie E. Brown claim that they heard many of their family stories while huddled around the hearth during the winter. Their just released collection from University Press of Kentucky entitled Kentucky Hauntings: Homespun Ghost Stories & Unexplained History is somewhat scholarly in that it gives more than a nod to the sources of each story. The Browns categorize their collection into three types of tales: those learned from history, those learned from headlines, and those heard through homefolks.
I was able to read the entire collection in one afternoon, but know that I will go back and reread some of the ones that I found most fascinating. Where was this book when my niece and nephew demanded scary stories around the campfire and all I had in my arsenal was a re-telling of Poe short stories? Many of the stories in this collection will delight those who crave a good scare.
In the history section, “A Chivaree Gone Bad” explains an old country custom while terrifying the reader with its unexpected outcome. Another story based on history and custom is “Telling the Bees,” which owes much of its structure to an old custom of telling the bees if their keeper dies so that the bees will not abandon their hive. I enjoyed learning about the old customs almost as much as I chilled from the eerie details of these stories. Other interesting customs no longer practiced in rural life like turkey drives, the burning of tobacco beds, whittling, and the initiation of a new hunter involving a creature called a Swamp Booger provide the basis for some of the more frightening plots.
In the headlines section, the Browns explore stories from the newspapers. One I had heard before while visiting Mammoth Cave investigates the ghost of Floyd Collins, an explorer who was trapped in the cave and died in 1925. I had also heard about the Lover’s Leap at Cumberland Falls, but had no idea that there was an actual accident at the park that resulted in that popular reference for one of the cliffs. An amusing story about the ghost who haunts the Paramount Art Center, a tale of a politician who did not want a grave stone, and the eerie goings-on at Waverly Hills Sanatorium are also entertaining and noteworthy.
I found myself most interested in the section entitled “Stories from Homefolks.” In these tellings, the authors seem to find their most authentic voices since the tales were passed on to them personally. In fact, I read a couple of them aloud to my husband–mainly because he’d followed me down to my reading spot next to the lake and I thought it only polite to share. There is a story about a bathtub ghost who saves a man’s life, a story about how killing a forbidden bird, the dove, makes a permanent circle in the ground that snow cannot cover, a tale about a shadow boy helping a young girl find her way home in a storm, a heartwarming yarn about a devoted neighbor who completes his mission to bring medicine to those in need, even though he’s dead. But my favorite from this section, “The Red Thing” has some elements of the tall tale to it that my husband and I discussed and laughed about afterwards. Was great-great uncle Lightel Simpson pulling some legs, or did some horrible creature really come to his cabin one night to devour his newly shot deer and frighten his hounds?
I’ll leave that for future readers to decide. Roberta Simpson Brown and Lonnie E. Brown are part of the Corn Island Storytelling Festival Community, so it makes perfect sense that the last story in their book recounts the final days of their dear friend, Joy Pennington, and her grace at facing the ravages of cancer. According to the Browns, “storytelling brings us together as a culture. We are close to our families and our neighbors when we sit together, tell stories, and then discuss our feelings about them.” I enjoyed reading Kentucky Hauntings: Homespun Ghost Stories & Unexplained History, both by myself at the edge of the lake and with my husband when we shared our theories about “The Red Thing.” In fact, I think I finally quit looking over my shoulder at that point.
***This review originally aired on Cincinnati NPR affiliate WVXU 91.7 during October.