From an imaginative Catholic boy who wanted to believe in the miraculous, to an adult who may have experienced the supernatural, I have been drawn to stories of the strange. I find myself spending hours online reading true-life accounts of hauntings, reading horror stories, and searching for my own experiences of the supernatural. When I come across a book like Passing Strange, I feel compelled to read it, especially when the stories contained are purported to be true.
The title of this book, Passing Strange, denotes an exemplary of strangeness. It alludes to the notion that the story or events related are so odd that it passes what is ordinarily considered to be strange. And so these are. The stories have been collected by Joseph Citro who has been described as “the bard of the bizarre.” Citro is a novelist of horror and an avid collector of bizarre folklore, especially that of New England. He has often been called upon by regional television and radio stations to provide the local scare for Halloween programs. What Citro has presents in Passing Strange are most of the New England tales he has been compiling throughout his career. Being from upstate New York, I have visited many of the locations Citro highlights, although not necessarily for the legends the author cites. But being familiar with the locales of these tales this did add a stronger interest in them for me.
The land we now identify as New England, has a long history from the indigenous people who first occupied the land, colonization by Europeans, and the founding states of the union of the United States. This long history often leads to mountains with sacred traditions, swamps that come with taboos and dire warnings, or historic sites that are left deserted in the landscape. These places become forgotten as to their original history, but can still be visible and present. Why a place was considered sacred, or taboo or even abandoned then becomes the germ of a legend. Cemeteries, buildings, ruins, and monuments, all become left behind by time. The names on headstones no longer have meaning to the living. Buildings become neglected or reused with their original purpose or owners forgotten. Ruins become overgrown by forests and sit incongruous in the new landscape. Monuments stand to barely remembered events or people, and our lack of understanding creates a muddled folklore around them. For us in the present, two generations back becomes ancient history, with all the mystery of the unknown as an Egyptian tomb. Even family history becomes myth as people forget details and fill in what they don’t remember with made up facts. People remember the same event differently from one another, and the truth becomes a faceted thing with refracted and conflicting tellings.
Citro in Passing Strange collects some of these half-remembered stories, with their mutable facts and gives us the final version we believe today. Citro has not researched them for accuracy. The author is not interested in historical facts, but in the oddity of the story. For Citro, the truth of the tale just deadens the fun. He wants to entertain the reader with something frightening, perplexing, or just bizarre. He presents his lore as in talking with one neighbor to another in conversation. Of course, in writing these tales down, all the verbal personality, additions, subtractions, and digressions have been muted. Passing Strange takes these bits of oral folklore and sets them down into a permanent form. The very fact that they have been solidified into this final printed version, creates the belief in the reader that these are the real and true facts. This is the illusion of the book. For many of these tales, their history is so amorphous there can never be a definitive version. They are simply preserved so that they won’t be lost.
This seems to be Citro’s main motivation. He has made a career out of collecting and telling these bits of folklore to keep them alive. Some of these stories are famous in the fortean community. They are well represented in other anthologies of a similar nature and across the internet where an active and vocal community perpetuates them, often adding their own confounding bits that further muddles the story. The disappearances in the Bennington Triangle, the mysterious happenings of Hockomock Swamp that have been noticed since before European settlement, the sinister history of Dudleytown and the ceaseless sounds of Bara-Hack are all classics of American supernatural folklore. These are often the tales that seduce you into the world of the unknown and provide the gateway into a realm of inspiriting possibilities. Other tales are less well known. The Phelps poltergeist is remarkable for the skill of the phenomenon, wherein the entity could instantly produce realistic figurative tableaus out of the Phelps’ family clothing. Its veracity has been questioned and its reasons remain unknown. Dr. Benton, an elusive hermit who may have discovered the murderous secret of eternal life, and Ephriam Gray, another antisocial eccentric who is thought to live forever. Both of these characters who have immortal souls are really morality tales against isolationist behavior.
Even in more recent reports like the Rocky Ridge Pond incident, the strangeness has a feeling of having a logical explanation to it. The real strangeness was not that a frozen pond on a farm in the middle of January had an unexplained hole in its ice. The real strangeness was how the government found out about it and their reaction to it. The hole in the frozen pond was obviously made by an object that fell onto the ice. But, why did the National Guard show up, cordon off the area, break up the ice and under cover of night, remove a black box from the water, then lie to an eyewitness about the identity of the object? These covert actions justify the creation of a tall tale around the incident. Was the government trying to avoid a lawsuit because a space object happened to be radioactive, lost its orbit and fell out of the sky onto private property? All that can be done is speculate. In follow up attempts, the government denied everything, including the visit. This leaves the people to make up their own details. Those details become more outlandish with each telling.
What are we to make of these tales? In all of them, there is a seed of plausibility. That is what makes them interesting. Then the incidents turn improbable, and we enter the realm of the bizarre. Are these bizarre elements what the storyteller has added or are the laws of nature being bent? Many of the legends presented in Passing Strange crumble when investigated just a little. Cirto himself coined the term “Bennington Triangle” during a radio broadcast discussion of the several people who had disappeared in the area of Glastenbury Mountain, Vermont. He created an entire mythos out of several unrelated vanishings with one spontaneous term. Before this broadcast, no one had either connected the disappearances nor had there been made any correlation of Bennington to the vanishings in the Bermuda Triangle.
The story of Ephraim Gray’s search for immortality immediately invokes suspicion because his name isn’t even certain. There are Malden locals that insist that his true last name is Graves. But either Gray or Graves, both versions of his name seem suspect since the story is about Ephraim’s grave, and it is not too much of a leap from Ephraim’s grave to Ephraim Gray. It had been assumed that Ephraim was interred in Bell Rock Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts since it is the oldest burying ground in the community, the other cemeteries being incorporated years after Ephraim is supposed to have died. Still, no one can point to his exact grave. In my research, there seem to be two conflicting reasons for this. Either his grave was found empty when it was attempted to be moved for road work and, therefore destroyed, or the tomb (which has been described as a large, forbidding metal door flat on the ground that led to an underground crypt) was buried to keep the wandering body in place. These inconsistencies make the story curious but also diminish its credibility to a camping yarn. Reading through the entire list of the contents of Passing Strange, one could cite logical explanations for the majority of the tales. We may disbelieve. We may find our sense of logic strained. We may even call the story out as a lie. But in each of us, what we want is for there to more of the world than we experience. We long for events that pass our knowledge and experience. The world is too mundane and full of drudgery. Citro’s mastery is not in his literary style. His gift is that he gives us the mystery and magic we long for. In our disbelief we devour his tales. His folksy style makes us long to visit the places he writes about to experience the strangeness and the fright for ourselves. Citro makes us want to believe.
Arthur Bruso © 2022
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