Wednesday, July 18, 2018

“An Investigator’s How-To Handbook”: A Review of The Van Meter Visitor: A True & Mysterious Encounter with the Unknown,

By Chad Lewis, Noah Voss, and Kevin Lee Nelson (Eau Claire, WI: On the Road Publications, 2013). ISBN: 978-0982431467

Thanks in large part to horror films and cable “reality” paranormal shows, the immense amount of time and effort legitimate paranormal investigators spend in libraries and historical societies chasing down leads is largely ignored. Most people are only interested in the “sexy” aspects of the haunting or cryptid visitation—who got chased, frightened, possessed, or injured? What dark menace is lurking in the corner? Are there “jump scares” as the investigators walk insane asylum hallways in the green glow of night-vision technology? Viewers don’t realize that paranormal investigators are in large part journalists and historians, tracking down the history that provides the context for the paranormal phenomena at play.
One of the world’s best known paranormal investigators was John Keel, of Mothman fame. He was also a journalist. So was his counterpart in the film The Mothman Prophecies. It is the journalist’s instincts for finding the hidden facts buried beneath or adjacent to the known ones that drive the good paranormal investigator. Christopher O’Brien’s Stalking the Herd, about cattle mutilations, is a thick, exhaustive testament to the value of mining newspaper clippings, police reports, and other firsthand accounts.
My forthcoming book, Watch Out for the Hallway: Our Two-Year Investigation of the Most Haunted Library in North Carolina, co-authored with my wife Tonya, a talented medium, owes as much to dozens of hours of research as it does to the 150-plus hours we spent investigating the library itself. There were plenty of dead ends, but also corroborations and finds in the form of documents and photographs that made all the hours worth it, illuminating the messages we heard and physical phenomena we experienced.
So I can appreciate the work that the three authors of The Van Meter Visitor put into this volume. I am taking my time with this aspect of the book because there are a surprising number of negative reviews of the book that sadly confuse indispensible research with “filler” of some kind. I hope this review serves in part to undo some of this mistaken criticism.
Lewis, Voss, and Nelson (all of whom have impressive resumés in the field, as evidenced by the About the Authors section) situate a limited sighting of winged, horned cryptids over several nights in the small town of Van Meter, Iowa in 1903 in a series of expanding circles of interest. As one would expect, they begin by laying out the history of Van Meter, as well as all of the major players—the town’s business owners and other prominent citizens—who encountered the creatures. In this first section, appropriately titled “History,” they relate the story, which is fascinating reading, recalling similar winged cryptids like the Mothman, but with its own unique twists. This section is authored almost entirely by Lewis.
The second section, “Theories,” is as strong as it is because the authors took the time to provide plenty of historical, geographical, economic, and human context. We already feel, 40 pages in, that we know and trust both the people of Van Meter and the authors themselves. In the “Theories” section the three authors look at a variety of possible explanations, including a primer on cryptids (featuring several similar cases such as the Jersey Devil), another on large birds of prey, the UFO/Alien connection that is prevalent in many cryptid sightings (such as of Mothman, Bigfoot, and Skinwalkers), thunderbirds and thoughtforms (the latter of which is currently of great interest because of the Slenderman phenomena), and ultraterrestrial theories (a standout survey chapter that runs 30-plus pages; the section on quantum physics and the holographic universe demonstrates that the authors are using all of our modern tools in their work).
The three authors all contribute chapters to the closing section, “Final Thoughts.” Their summations responsibly explore a number of possible explanations and there are no firm statements made about what the citizens of Van Meter encountered 115 years ago. Their theories all connect back to the information from the previous two sections.
Overall, The Van Meter Visitor serves a dual purpose: as a primer about the Van Meter mystery that allows the reader to pick up where the authors left off in their investigation, armed with abundant historical, sociological, and cryptological context (the two appendices offer a list of businesses operating in Van Meter in 1903 and an array of local and national newspaper accounts of the incident) and also as a handbook on the components—and countless hours—that go into a thorough paranormal investigation.
As if these two aspects were not enough, an extra bonus is the Foreword by the recently deceased author of over 80 books on the paranormal and spirituality, Brad Steiger. The book also features abundant historical photographs of the people and places in Van Meter, many provided with help from the local library, which help to close the century-plus time gap for the reader.
The Van Meter Visitor is a textbook example of how to do a thorough investigation written by seasoned, passionate professionals who bring to light a fascinating cryptid that has not yet gotten its fair share of attention and consideration. It should be a part of any investigator’s or enthusiast’s library, alongside Keel, Guiley, Redfern, Steiger, and the rest of the pillars of the field of paranormal investigation. Kudos to the authors on a job well done.