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Lyle Zapato

Review: Spooky Washington

Lyle Zapato | 2010-10-24.8380 LMT | Cascadia | Cephalopods | Sasquatch Issues | Paraterrestrials | Entertainment
Spooky Washington by S.E. Schlosser

Spooky Washington: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore is part of the Spooky series by S.E. Schlosser, which collects Schlosser's retellings of ghost stories and folklore from around North America. This entry is all about the Cascadian prefecture of Washington. There are 26 short stories in total -- all assigned to a particular town, city, county, mountain, region, etc. -- and each is illustrated with a scratchboard drawing by Paul G. Hoffman.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, "Ghost Stories", is obviously all about ghosts. In general I don't find ghosts all that interesting (so-called "spectral phenomena" are usually just psychotronically induced hallucinations caused by malfunctioning mind-control devices or standing resonance waves -- deflector beanies will keep them from bothering you), so I wasn't that captivated by these stories. Your mileage may vary. (Spoilers ahead, but these all contain well-worn ghost-story tropes you'll see coming a mile away.)

If you're looking to be scared, you'll probably be disappointed. For the most part, these stories aren't horror; many are barely even spooky, title notwithstanding. Schlosser's collection of ghosts give hungry wives groceries, help out poor travelers with phantom diners that serve food at low prices, warn mountain climbers of avalanche conditions, establish work-camps for rail-riding hobos, stroll through Pike Place Market without doing anything, make bowls of cereal, and are exemplary elementary school students. Not exactly bone-chilling stuff.

Some of the stories seem to focus more on the relationships of the living characters than on the ghost encounters. For instance, both "At the Market" and "The Mausoleum" use the encounter as a pretext for whether the narrators' husband/boyfriend will believe what they saw (the former trusts his wife's word; the later requires photographic proof -- someone needs to work a little harder at this relationship, hint hint.)

There are ghostly revenge/comeuppance tales that add some menace and mild horror: a man wrongly lynched as a horse thief warns the vigilantes that they'll all die screaming, which they do; a man who shot a butcher because he thought his beloved cow was killed is lynched and cursed to wander Steilacoom for all eternity as a cow-obsessed ghost; a child ghost eventually causes the obstinate old woman who bought her home to die of a heart attack; and the ghost of some jerk boards a hell-bound ghost train, which the witnesses agree seems about right for him.

The best of the ghost stories, at least atmospherically, is the one about a man in Port Townsend who made his wealth drugging and shanghaiing men to work on ships. He mistakenly shanghais his wife's cousin who came from New York to stay with them, and falls to the unwilling sailor's ghostly (and seaweedy) revenge when the young man dies at sea.

The second part, "Powers of Darkness and Light", contains tales about more substantive subjects, including a few my readers will find familiar. For instance, "Mountain Devils" is about Human-Sasquatch conflict. It's based on the 1924 incident at Ape Canyon, where brave Sasquatch Militia forces fought off invading human miners who sought to despoil the land and usurp Sasquatch mineral rights. Unfortunately, Schlosser's version is from the human point of view and closely follows the narrative of anti-Sasquatch propaganda, which is simply unconscionable in this day and age.

While there are no stories based on Sasquatch howls -- again, an unconscionable oversight -- some of the stories draw from more traditional native human lore: "The Miser" is about a Nisqually hunter who's greedy for hiaqua, a type of seashell used as currency, and tries to steal a hoard of them without making an offering to the giant otter spirits that guard Mt. Rainier. "Bone Cleaner" is a revenge story about a child seeking to get rid of his abusive step-father by luring him to the lake of the Bone Cleaner -- a giant, clawed monster that snatches animals from beneath the black water and leaves only their clean bones on the shore.

"The Beloved Woman" tells the traditional origin of Mount St. Helens as a woman who is fought over by two brothers, but it extends the story to the mountain's 1980 eruption. The narrator is the white Ghost Elk, who for millennia helped the Seatco capture humans for tasty snacks. After the white people arrive and the Seatco leave, Ghost Elk becomes fascinated with the new people and tries to warn them of Beloved Woman's impending fit of rage. "Totem" also mixes traditional lore with modern times. A man buys a small, strange totem at a garage sale in Seattle and its odd mix of Native and European symbols binds him to the gods Raven and Coyote, who are none too pleased.

Other stories include a cautionary tale about the dangers of Viking-selkie marriage; a retelling of Kenneth Arnold's famous encounter above Mt. Rainier with crescent-shaped UFOs that the press mistakenly called "flying saucers"; one about a stairway to hell in Maltby, which I guess is as good a place as any to build that sort of thing; one about a paraterrestrial that visits the Yakima tribe; one that teaches how to beat The Oregon Trail without dying of dysentery (PROTIP: use witchcraft); one about a message from beyond the grave left on an answering machine (which really should be in the ghost section, but I guess that would ruin the spooky 13/13 story division); and one based on the true story of a murdered woman whose body was dumped in Lake Crescent, only to resurface years later turned into soap.

(A minor error: the map at the front mistakenly places Lake Crescent on Kitsap Peninsula. The lake referred to in the story "Soap" is actually on the Olympic Peninsula west of Port Angeles. There is a Crescent Lake -- note word order -- a bit south of the location marked on Schlosser's map; but that one is, as far as I know, devoid of saponificated corpses.)

And finally we come to the main reason I'm reviewing Schlosser's book: it has a story about a Tree Octopus. (Her resources section doesn't credit my research into these animals, but it does credit Weird Washington, which included an article based on my work. I guess that means I'm second-handedly associated with this book.)

This tale is more cute than spooky. A mischievous tree octopus is stealing chickens from a farmer. The farmer tries to trap the octopus, but it outwits him, laughing at him as it gets away with both the bait and two more chickens. He devises another trap using a net that catches it, but instead of shooting the tree octopus as he planned, he thwacks it with his rifle butt and tells it to leave his chickens alone. It flees and doesn't come back. Weeks later he tracks the octopus to its nest and leaves a knapsack full of fried chicken by its tree while he goes fishing. When he comes back he loudly feigns surprise that the chicken is gone. In the tree above, the octopus laughs and scuttles back into his nest.

The farmer's gift to his new tree octopus friend makes this an excellent story to tell your kids this Halloween before you take them trick-or-treating for tree octopus.

End of post.