December 17, 2023

Spooky Holiday Reading: Merry Christmas, or Scary Christmas?

I'm sure you've heard the 1963 song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Andy Williams croons in his soothing voice,"...there'll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glory of Christmases long, long ago." Although modern Americans tend to associate ghosts with Halloween, in Victorian England ghosts were associated with Christmas. I suppose this makes sense in some ways. After all, Christmas occurs at the darkest point of the year, which seems like a good time for ghosts to be out haunting. 

In the spirit of a spooky Christmas, here are four things you can read to get you in the holiday spirit. Two of them are even available free online, if you're feeling cash-strapped after holiday shopping. 

1. The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters by Jeff Belanger

This is the latest book by Jeff Belanger, a local author, paranormal investigator, and host of the New England Legends podcast and TV show on PBS and Amazon Prime. Full confession: the publisher sent me a copy of this book to review, and I've appeared on Jeff's podcast in the past. This is a great book for anyone interested in learning about the spooky folklore of Christmas. 

Me holding my copy of Fright Before Christmas!

I think by now most people are familiar with Krampus, the horned Austrian monster who terrorizes folks at this time of year, but Jeff also writes about many other strange Christmas creatures that are less well-known. For example, have you heard of Hans Von Trapp, the Cannibal Christmas Scarecrow of Alsace, France? Merry Christmas - but sleep with the lights on.

2. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The protagonist of this novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son) is Vic McQueen, a psychic, ass-kicking, biker mama who grows up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (my hometown). The villain is a creepy vampire named Charles Talent Manx III. Imbecilic yet cunning, child-like yet predatory, Manx travels around the country in an old Rolls Royce. 

Armed with gingerbread-scented laughing gas, Manx abducts small children and brings them to Christmasland, a creepy holiday-themed amusement park that exists just beyond the border of our reality. He and Vic battle it out in this book that will make you gasp out "Merry Christmas..." as you slip into a vampiric, gingerbread slumber.

3."The Festival" by H.P. Lovecraft (free online)

One of my favorite stories by this Rhode Island master of weird horror.  A young man visits his family's ancestral Massachusetts hometown to participate in its traditional winter solstice celebration for the first time. Although he's charmed by the town's Colonial-era architecture, he's unnerved by its residents' silent, expressionless demeanors. 

He's even more unnerved when he follows a crowd of celebrants into a church, then into its crypt, then down ancient stone steps deep into the earth... Is he really entering a subterranean realm, or just his own fetid subconscious? Either way, he discovers a fungus-filled, maggoty hellscape. You'll scream "Merry Christmas!" before losing your sanity. 

4. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James by M.R. James (free online)

If "The Festival" sounds too lurid for you, may I suggest the ghost stories of M.R. James? James was an Englishman and Anglican priest who wrote ghost stories every Christmas to entertain his friends. His stories often feature bookish academics or lonely clergymen visiting old historic sites and encountering supernatural evil. 

It's all very proper and British. But while his stories are subtle and heavy on the atmosphere, they often end with shocking violence and death. Nothing says "Merry Christmas!" like an undead Satanic nobleman devouring your face. 

Enjoy your holidays, and I hope all your horrors are confined to the printed page this December.  

December 03, 2023

Haunted by the Nantucket Mermaid

This post is about a mermaid who has fascinated, and possibly haunted, people for centuries. But I want to start by talking about a human man: Ichabod Paddock. 

Ichabod Paddock was born around 1661 in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, and died around 1750. He's buried in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Paddock is remembered today for two things: his pioneering role in the Nantucket whaling industry, and his alleged extramarital affair with a mermaid. As a whaling pioneer, Ichabod came with his two brothers to Nantucket in 1690 and taught the islanders how to hunt whales. Their actions were instrumental in making Nantucket into the whaling capital of the world. 

Oddly, we have more details about his alleged (and probably legendary) affair with the mermaid than we do about his actual life as a whaler. The legend goes something like this. Once while on a whaling voyage, Ichabod was swallowed alive by a large, seemingly invulnerable whale nicknamed Crookjaw. The local whalers thought Crookjaw was somehow magical, and this was confirmed by what Ichabod found inside the creature's stomach. Rather than digestive fluids and half-eaten fish, Paddock found a cozy ship's cabin with lit lanterns, a luxurious featherbed, and a table. Two people - a beautiful, golden-haired mermaid and the Devil himself - were playing cards at the table when Ichabod arrived. 

Engraving from 1817 by John Paas

The mermaid won the game, and the Devil angrily disappeared in a flash of sulfurous smoke. "What were you playing for?" Ichabod asked. "We were playing for you," the mermaid said, "and I'm glad I won." She took Ichabod by the hand and led him to the bed, where they made passionate love for hours. 

Ichabod eventually emerged from Crookjaw's mouth and swam back to his ship, but the next day he again commanded the crew to sail to the magical whale so he could enjoy more of the mermaid's loving embraces. After several hours he emerged from the whale and returned to his ship, only to sail back to Crookjaw and the mermaid the next day, and the next after that. Ichabod's passion for the beautiful mermaid was insatiable. 

Eventually, news of Ichabod's strange extramarital affair reached his wife, Joanna. Ichabod was a formidable whaler, but Joanna was equally formidable in her own way. Since both Crookjaw and the mermaid were magical creatures, Joanna asked a local silversmith to craft a silver-tipped harpoon. At the time, silver was believed to have the power to harm magical creatures like witches, mermaids, and even invulnerable whales like Crookjaw. Vestiges of this belief still remain today, with the idea that werewolves and vampires can be killed with silver bullets. 

Joanna presented the silver-tipped harpoon to Ichabod as a gift. He accepted it, and although he was a formidable whale-killer and mermaid-lover, he apparently wasn't bright enough to realize that silver  could kill enchanted whales and the lustful mermaids who live in them. At the urging of his crew, Ichabod hurled the silver-tipped harpoon at Crookjaw, expecting it to bounce off the whale's impenetrable hide. Instead, it sunk deep into the body of Crookjaw, who died with a groan and a geyser of blood. 

Ichabod screamed in horror, incredulous at what he had done. What had happened to his beloved mermaid? When the crew butchered the whale's body, nothing was found inside its stomach except some long yellow seaweed that reminded them of a woman's hair. The beautiful mermaid was gone. 

In 1710 Ichabod and his wife left Nantucket and returned to mainland Massachusetts, eventually having nine children. According to author Nathaniel Philbrick, little else is really known about the life of Ichabod Paddock. His legendary encounter with the mermaid has lived on, though, and is still surprisingly resonant with some people today. 

For example, the book The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts (1984) contains the following story which a Nantucket woman told author Blue Balliett. The woman came from an old Nantucket family, and went to visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum with her sister who was visiting the island. While touring the museum, the woman became entranced by a painting of a young man. She had the strange feeling that she somehow knew him, and had been in an intimate relationship with him, similar to a marriage. She said:

"I was held by a magnetism of some kind that was so strong I couldn't move. It wasn't that I was objectively interested in him, or thought I saw a family resemblance of some kind. It was rather that he had an iron grip on me." (Blue Balliett, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts(1984), p.62)

The woman remained staring at the painting, immobilized, until her sister came and shook her arm, asking if something was wrong. This ended the trance.

 A mermaid illustration from 1687

The woman later went to visit her minister, and told him about her strange encounter with the painting. The minister explained that it was a portrait of Ichabod Paddock, who had fallen in love with a mermaid who was killed by a silver harpoon. The woman felt dizzy as she heard the story, because ever since she was a young child she'd had a weird "recurrent memory" that popped into her head like a daydream:

"It goes like this: I remember being in pitch darkness and having an excruciating pain in my side as I swim back and forth, back and forth, in black water. I also remember phosphorescence around me, the kind you see in the ocean on a dark night. I always thought it was peculiar, and I used to tell myself that maybe it was a memory of being inside the womb or something." (Blue Balliett, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts(1984), p.62)

Her encounter with Ichabod's portrait seemed eerily meaningful to her as she listened to the minister talk. Were these daydreams memories of a past life? Was she somehow the mermaid, reincarnated in 20th century Nantucket? She wasn't sure, but for months afterward she had a craving (which she resisted) to revisit the museum to see the portrait, and would wake up in the middle of the night seeing Ichabod Paddock's face floating above her bed. 

Perhaps it was just coincidence that this woman's unusual, recurring dream fit so well with the mermaid legend. That's what I thought, until I received an email from a young woman who is a member of the Paddock family, which still exists today. Like the woman in The Ghosts of Nantucket, she also feels a strange connection to the legendary mermaid, writing that "In my mythos, I am the mermaid who was given the opportunity to reincarnate because of winning half of Ichabod's soul." 

About two years later, I received an email from a man who was also a Paddock, telling me that his daughter felt a powerful connection to the mermaid legend, that she had a large mermaid tattoo on her back, and that she often dreamt of being a mermaid. I arranged to talk with him and his daughter, who it turned out was the young woman who had already emailed me. We had a nice conversation over Zoom, and I learned a lot about their family history and connection to the mermaid story. I didn't get the impression that either the young woman or her father literally believed she was the reincarnated mermaid, but rather that the mermaid was a source of family pride and artistic inspiration. 

Unlike the woman quoted in Ghosts of Nantucket, this young woman didn't feel upset or scared by the legend. Neither did her father. They thought the the legend was an interesting part of their family's genealogy. I don't blame them. Many people descended from old New England families have witches in their family tree, but only a few have a mermaid.

Mermaids aren't just cute cartoons, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or sexy fantasy figures, like you might see online. Mermaids are the modern iteration of ancient ocean spirits. They are elemental beings personifying the vast and unknowable waters that cover most of our planet. The ancient Greeks knew them as nereids and oceanids, the nymphs who lived in the seas and ocean. Nymphs were powerful godlike beings who were feared and petitioned for their blessings. Mermaids may also partly have their origin in stories about the Sirens, seductive female monsters that lured sailors to their doom. The seductive and possible devilish Nantucket mermaid certainly seems to share some traits with the Sirens. 

You may not believe in mermaids, just like you may not believe in invulnerable magic whales like Crookjaw. But you can't deny the hold mermaids still have on our imagination. They may not be seen in the ocean as often as they once were, but they still haunt our dreams and subconscious.