Saturday, April 26, 2014

“A Heavily Haunted State”: A review of Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Big Book of West Virginia Ghost Stories

 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2014), ISBN: 978-0-8117-1115-9
It’s always a pleasure to read and review a new Rosemary Ellen Guiley book. Not only are they based on interviews and fieldwork coupled with a thorough review of secondary sources; I have also had the privilege of accompanying her on several paranormal investigations, including on the three acres on which I live. Some of the experiences of my family have been chronicled in other of her books (e.g., on Ouija boards), and in this book on West Virginia hauntings, there’s a segment about the arts center my wife and I used to run.
            These personal connections aside, as an author who often uses the supernatural in my stories, novels, and plays, my growing collection of Guiley’s books is an indispensible part of my research library.
            The Big Book of West Virginia Ghost Stories, broken up by the eight geographic locations designated by the WV Department of Commerce, is a riveting read and a must-have for anyone interested in the folklore, traditions, and paranormal abundance that the “Wild and Wonderful” state of West Virginia provides.
            As a resident of the state for the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to travel to most of the areas described. I have a particular affinity for the Fairmont area, where I live, as well as Parkersburg, Point Pleasant, Weston, and Wheeling. I have witnessed interesting phenomena in several of these locations, which I will mention briefly in the course of the review.
            A great strength of the book is its diversity. There are stories of murder and intrigue, residual hauntings, the hauntings of universities and theatres around the state, physical phenomena, and plenty of contextual history for each area. Below are the highlights from my unique perspective as a resident, writer, and paranormal researcher/experiencer.
            The first section, the “Eastern Panhandle,” features Harper’s Ferry and the events/hauntings surrounding John Brown and the start of the Civil War. This area of the state is particularly rich in history, and Guiley’s skills as an historian as well as a storyteller shine in its pages. The popular destination town of Berkeley Springs is also featured.
            “Mountaineer Country,” which includes Fairmont in Marion County, has a vast array of hauntings, between the massive state university, historic Prickett’s Fort, and the tragedies and troubles surrounding the coal-mining industry.
            “The Northern Panhandle” is dominated by the thriving mini-metropolis of Wheeling, which boasts paranormal activity in such landmarks as the Capitol Theatre. The nearby town of Moundsville is home to the West Virginia State Penitentiary, the one-time home of some of “the state’s most deranged and violent convicts” (p. 114). Its Gothic design really makes an impression. Between its numerous hangings and electrocutions courtesy of “Old Sparky,” the prison is chock full of hauntings. Guiley also takes the time to illuminate the connections with the infamous Charles Manson and the prison, which are often misrepresented. An added attraction when visiting the prison is the nearby Grave Creek Mound, attributed to the mysterious Adena culture.
            In my personal experience, one of the two richest areas of paranormal phenomena, including ghosts, is the Mid-Ohio Valley, including Parkersburg. I am fascinated by all things Parkersburg, including Blennerhassett Island, the Blennerhassett Hotel, and the Blennerhassett Museum. Guiley provides all the details on the Blennerhassett family. It is fascinating stuff, involving as it does Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to buy massive amounts of land in Louisiana to start his own country. The Hotel is splendid—I have taken ghost tours, stayed overnight, and even played a part in a film that shot a scene there. And the Museum staff are friendly and knowledgeable. Be sure to read up on and then visit the Riverview Cemetery as well. I was part of the group that the author was with when she had her vortex experience with the Weeping Woman statue (related on pages 150–151).
            The “Mountain Lakes” region boasts the largest hand cut stone building in North America, and the second in the world after the Kremlin—Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA). Guiley took an extended private tour of what might possibly be the most haunted place in West Virginia, and this section is a highlight of the book. The theatre company that I run provides live theatre events at TALA and we have had several interesting experiences while rehearsing and performing there, including watching a cigar roll off a table and snap in half in mid-air and one of our company members suffering a “phantom ice pick lobotomy.”
            Point Pleasant, in the “Metro Valley” along the Ohio River, is my favorite place in all of West Virginia. It is where my wife and I met Rosemary several years ago after we encountered an inter-dimensional being coming back from the TNT area (where the Mothman was seen several times in the late 1960s). Point Pleasant serves as the model for my play, “A Kitchener County Menace,” which had a staged reading at the haunted State Theatre a few years ago during the Mothman Festival, and figures into several of my novels and serialized stories. The town, nestled at the confluence of the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers, is quaint and full of history. Guiley covers it all, from the Lowe Hotel, to the park, to the theatre. Parkersburg and Point Pleasant are just a few hours apart. For any lover of the paranormal, you can’t do better than arming yourself with this book and taking a weekend to explore these fascinating places.
            The book’s final section is the “Hatfield-McCoy Mountains.” The recent Kevin Costner mini-series has sparked renewed interest in America’s most famous feud. Also included in this section is a fascinating story of the murder of Mamie Thurman.

            If you are a fan of Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s work, this book is one of her best. If not, whether you in live in West Virginia or across the country (or the world), The Big Book of West Virginia Ghost Stories is a must read for anyone who loves a spooky tale well told.

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