Review: Weird New England

By Paula R. Stiles

Citro, Joseph A. Weird New England: Your Travel Guide to New England’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York:x23321 Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005. Hardcover. $19.95 USD. $27.95 CDN. 288pp. ISBN: 1-4027-3330-5.

I was already in the process of reading Joe Citro’s Vermont legends books when someone gave this to me for Christmas a few years ago. It seemed a natural fit – both my reading Citro’s stuff and someone giving me this book – since I’m a lifelong folklore fan and I grew up in Vermont. I’d heard about the Weird America series by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, of course, but hadn’t had a chance to buy one of the books.

These are essentially coffee table books on folklore: tons of photos and illustrations, and a desire to tell a good yarn over academic rigor. But they’re still useful for several reasons. One is that the photos and illustrations, at least in the Weird New England book of the series, are freaking creepy. You don’t necessarily want to be reading this one in the dead of the night if you don’t want to give yourself the chills. The spookiest ones are the “face in the rear-view mirror” illustration on page 175, the humongous “phantom hitchhiker” illustration in 178 and the Dover Demon on page 78. Don’t believe me? Flip through the thing at 2am some time and tell me some of those illustrations don’t make you jump when they pop up unexpectedly. They are nicely arranged for maximum effect.

Another reason is that you get a surprising amount of storytelling, considering the number and size of photos and illustrations. Sometimes, you get two or three stories per page. Others can be several pages long, and there are often interlinking stories from the same area. There’s also an index to help you look things up.

Even if you already know a lot of New England folklore, you’re apt to run across some strange and surprising stuff, not least because some of the stories only seem to be a few years old. Take, for example, the collection of anecdotes on pages 89-91 about women who could literally stop clocks. Or the Men in Black urban (rural?) legends on pages 79-81. And 20 pages are devoted near the beginning to various obscure (and not-so-obscure) structures of unknown origin and date around New England, most notably the Newport Tower in Rhode Island and “America’s Stonehenge” (AKA Mystery Hill) in Salem, New Hampshire, which appeared in Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. Prehistoric astronomical observatories predicting the winter solstice? Places of human sacrifice? Prehistoric root cellars? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.

Others are familiar to New Englanders and readers of Stephen King. Phantom Clowns (the monster in King’s novel It) get pages 132-3 devoted to the rash of sightings about them in the early 80s. Every Vermonter knows about New England’s answer to Loch Ness – Champ the watery monster from Lake Champlain on pages 118-9. And Herman Mudgett on pages 134-5 (AKA H.H. Holmes), a serial killer who murdered and was executed in Philadelphia but hailed from New Hampshire, made an appearance on the show Supernatural in the season-two episode “No Exit”. Doc Benton, another charmer from New Hampshire who pops up in Weird New England on pages 18-9 and is a lot like a legendary version of Lovecraft’s Herbert West from Re-animator, appeared in season-three’s “Time Is on My Side”. Lovecraft had to have been inspired by the Frog People of Danbury, featured on pages 66-7, who look remarkably like Innsmouth’s fishmen.

And then there’s the plain eccentric, New-England-style, like the whale-tale sculpture that startles motorists passing over Williston, Vermont on I-89, featured on page 264.

The book also has its share of more universal tales such as cases of spontaneous combustion, phantom hitchhikers, white ladies, rains of rocks, cannibals, vampires, sightings of the Devil, and fiery ghost ships at sea (those of you who have read our other folkloric book reviews may recall another such ghost-ship legend off the coast of British Columbia). Weird New England is also positively riddled with more alien abductions and other tales of creatures Not of This World than the entire series of The X-Files.

There is probably enough in here for you to investigate these tales further if you like. Citro is fond of names, dates and places: the kind of things you need to dig deeper on your own. Nor does he spend much time judging the veracity of these legends. He just records them, dead-pan, for people to judge for themselves.

Two things about the book are a little annoying. One is the general arrangement, which feels a bit hodgepodge and confusing. The book has twelve chapters, arranged by subject matter rather than place. This results in more geographical hopping around than the “Brobdingnagian” bullfrogs of Brandon, Vermont and perhaps less attention to the coastal areas than seems warranted, considering New England’s extensive maritime history. While some legends are neatly grouped together (such as the many “prehistoric” structures of the chapter “Ancient Mysteries”), others, like the many “demons” that look an awful lot like Little Green Men, are scattered around with little discussion about their similarities.

Another thing involves the “Ancient Mysteries” chapter. I don’t have any issues with introducing the many theories (some dating back before the 20th century) about pre-Viking European exploration or even settlement in New England. Despite the paucity of strong evidence (anything like the archaeological finds of a medieval Viking presence at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, for example), these theories have remained popular over the years and, hey, they are possible. However, the casual assumption that only Europeans could have built such structures and that the (apparent) lack of resemblance to the structures of local Native Americans who were here at the beginning of the Colonial era seems to clinch the idea that Europeans must have made them, is just a tad insulting to Native Americans. There is no conclusive evidence that pre-Viking Europeans settled in New England or lived there long enough to build in stone. Whereas, we have good evidence that immigrants from northern Asia have been in New England for the past 12,000 years. Really, who’s more likely to have built these megalithic structures? And surely, the burning question should be: why?

That said, this chapter annoys a bit only because it’s near the beginning and fairly uniform in its presentation of its material. The rest of Weird New England is much more varied and colourful – in other words, weird. The book overall is a fun, scary ride that delivers. Check it out for yourself or give it to someone else. They’ll appreciate it. I did.

You can find Weird New England on Amazon.com and more information about Joseph A. Citro on his website.