Halloween Musings from the Allegheny Plateau

For my road trip through much of the Allegheny Plateau, I planned to be there near peak fall. A freak late season heat wave prevented practically any vibrant colors from coming out in most places I went to it turned out, but the rest of the journey went off without a hitch and I hit all of my target stops but one.

I had the good fortune to be doing this trip while reading the book (that I am still reading as of now) When They Severed Earth From Sky, which is about how prehistoric and premodern myths often reflect distorted accounts of real world events. Often natural in origin. The book postulates that in a non-record keeping culture, it is easier to pass down information from one generation to another if human intention and romantic flourish is added to the account. This ensures that future storytellers will want to tell it and tribe members will want to hear it.

One of the reasons I went on this trip is to do ‘research’ of a sort. Since 2018 I have been writing on ongoing fiction short story series about a post-United States (but not post-apocalyptical in the environmental sense) future centered around this region and the new cultures that grow up in the void left by the parting of the old society. The technology level is kind of rustbelt modern, akin to the STALKER games, but with a heavy dose of folk horror and sword and sorcery. Given the propensity of people to claim to see strange creatures in this region, and my past experience road tripping in West Virginia, it made a natural choice. Also, around this time the disastrous Fallout 76 came out, which I avoided and whose release time was coincidental with my own development of this setting. But it kind of challenged me to do the region better, as I knew I could. So far, I have used many of the Appalachian cryptids (as well as less modern folklore) to help round out the stories. The overall vibe kind of comes across as a hybrid between something Laird Barron would write and the game Dusk.

Serpent Mound, the only truly ancient site I visited.

One wonders what it is that makes this region so good for spooks and haints. I imagine the deep religiosity (but for a Manichean monotheism) clashes with the brooding forests and broken hills. This is creature country. Not the desert of the Bible. The desire to treat this still very wild land in the traditional sense of the devout English or Ulstermen fails. But the desire to see something memorable and folkloric remains. The failure to take in enough of the preexisting Shawnee mythology leaves a void that the distant and blandly universal god of the Bible could never truly fill when it comes to regional identity. Point Pleasant, at least, has a petroglyph of an Algonquian water panther, though my picture of it is not good enough to bother uploading here. Anyway, they have their own local creature since the 60s and the tourists it draws in has brought the downtown back from the brink.

Mothman statue, Point Pleasant.
Flatwoods Monster, original sighting site in Flatwoods, WV. Now a fast food and ice cream joint.

With the coming and going of coal and industry, the region feels like its slipping back into something premodern. So why shouldn’t it be a pioneer in re-mythologizing itself? Sure, the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster strike me as large birds, especially owls, seen in low light conditions and mistaken for giant humanoid monsters since perspective and distance were off. But they represent a very real desire for re-enchantment of the world. Not in the generic occidental monolithic religious way we are used to, but in a localized way that differentiates some regions from another. Much like the Jersey Devil does for my current region or the Kushtaka for coastal Alaska. They are mascots as well as something else. Something specific.

If we lived in a world were Carthage had beaten Rome and our western-Eurasian maritime culture had ended up being a Carthaginian-Celtic-Hellenistic hybrid (one can dream) I can imagine two things: 1. more syncretism with the native traditions in North America upon advent of the colonial period, and 2. local shrines and temples to strange sightings. I imagine this is how gods got started in the first place anyway. My favorite thing about being in Japan, second only to heated vending machines, is the localized nature of Shinto temples. Imagine a Mothman or Jersey Devil or Coyote temple, laid out open plan. Multiple buildings built around natural features for a seamless regional experience that reflects the land that myths arise from, as well as the myths themselves.

Seen in this light, the ruins of the region are not just testaments to a past sinking into entropy, but also a fountain for new myths for the future. A reinvigorated folklore for a changing culture could be born here. This is true for many other similar places as well. As Ibn Khaldun teaches us, its often the neglected and sidelined places where solidarity is re-forged first, and thus where the impetus of history can shift towards. This is how a view a future-oriented trek to the adaptations we need to deal with living in the Anthropocene, a process I have previously written about as The Black Longhouse.

Near the end of my trip, I hiked down the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike towards Sidelong Hill tunnel. One of three abandoned hill-traversing tunnels from a section of the highway that was dropped from use in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, what I found there was a local youth shrine of sorts. Graffiti and messages, many sloppy, some funny, all of them speaking to the power of this place to communicate outside of oneself and for those of certain dispositions to congregate.

I walked deep into the gash in the earth, into the bowels of the Allegheny mountains. At about the halfway point, when both exits were distant smudges of light, I stopped and shut off my flashlight. In the perfect damp darkness I stood. I clapped, hollered, and sang. My own voice came back to me a hundredfold from every direction, amplified and distorted.

Ancient shamans would have killed for a better otherworldly experience.

Happy Halloween.

The Black Longhouse

“You’re feeling the oppression of Christian hegemony in conflict with native animism,” he said. “Self-righteous, puritanical men seized this land. You’re also feeling the eyes of the vultures evaluating the sweet texture of your skin. The eyes of many animals. Animals endure.’

~Laird Barron, ‘Worse Angels’

What follows is a symbolic manifesto of sorts. Take from it what you will.

In a world built on bones there is an entire hemisphere that is especially shattered by abrupt displacement. On the northern continent of that hemisphere is the seat of a degenerating world-empire. Within that empire are a people unmoored from the reality of the ancient land beneath their feet even as it dies because of them. They cling to the ideologies of a failing state despite these very beliefs having brought them to this point. The universal idealism of a simple moralistic world and one set of values to make sense of it has not just failed them-it has made everything worse for everyone. The ubiquity of their communications networks brings what was once left at the pulpit of the puritan into an unceasing daily bombardment of affirmation for collapsing monoculture.

But there was a time that lasted far longer before the coming of Christ and Cotton Mather when these lands had no such grifters. Tribes existed and fought each other as humans always do, but had no concepts of messianic religion, ‘biological’ race, or the glorification of victimhood. These many diverse peoples were wiped out by an unprecedented hemisphere-encompassing apocalypse where smallpox and plague took the majority as a prelude. Then came shattered bands of survivors still alive in a time where the recently dead outnumbered the living by multitudes and were forced to respond to an alien invasion of technologically advanced extremists. They went down in a hell of a fight that took centuries and their descendants are still live today, despite the odds.

In their place came a civilization that broke all contact with this past and rushed to fill the vacuum with their own inheritance…but not all these things were a sensible fit for the new locale. Despite the cultural disconnect of most of its inhabitants, its earthy chaotic gods sleep much closer to the surface than the long-buried and fully domesticated pantheons across the sea. This is not a land of mellow meadows and shires, but of earthquakes, blizzards, tornadoes, and towering thunderstorms. This is a land that scorns weakness.

The newcomers could breed to the point where they were immune to native syncretism-avoiding the natural fate of conquerors. This further cut off the northern reaches of the hemisphere even beyond that of the rest. We live in their world now. But now, in the early 21rst Century, we see their world view cracking under the strain of its own hubris and excess. The opportunity to build something new is opening before our eyes. Something that fits this place better. Something that can at least bridge some of the gap between the incongruous ideological imposition of today and the natural state of a beautiful and terrible land.

There are those of all backgrounds and persuasions who find no tribe amongst the degenerating postmoderns of our time. They find the amplification of faddish superficial issues a distraction, the busybodies of the commentariat and consumer as the front for a past-prime ruling class in crisis. Witch hunts are everywhere as the fearful and ostensibly secular descendants of those original puritan settlers and conquistadores blame heretics for their own inadequacies.

Those who reject this status quo may find themselves walking in the woods as they travel apart from the trends. Let us say in the northeast or Great Lakes region-though it could be anywhere. The new growth forest of the woodlands hacked down and re-grown is filled with underbrush and small trees. Ticks lurk everywhere as un-predated deer strip the biodiversity as they spread like locusts.

Eventually these travelers make their way to a place deep in the woods. Giant ancient trees tower above in the old growth grove. Here, the underbrush is lighter. Flowers bloom again. Sharp unseen eyes raise their hackles as they know the deer tread lightly in this place for fear of predation. At the center is a longhouse. Those redoubtable large bark clad structures that could house many people and supplies. But this longhouse is different. It is jet black and angled as only a modern construct could be. It draws from the forgotten past but is no slave to it. It would seem incongruous to those who came across it accidentally, but not to our band our travelers.

On the inside they find the interior lit only by the fire pits. The shadows cast about imply a structure far larger than seems from the outside. There wait for them masked figures-wooden shamanic grotesques with distorted and leering features. Beneath this they wear well-tailored suits. They tell the travelers that to accept the uncertainties of a new future is to draw strength from a different past. The pipe is passed around as the masked ones speak of a land people belong to, and not a land belonging to people.

‘Mankind sought the death of Coyote, an animal once confined to the plains and Rockies. His attempts to kill it made it breed and migrate outwards. A century after this campaign began it has unintentionally spread the animal over the entire continent. Here, in the east, it has bred with Canadian wolves up north before moving south. It has thus grown in size and pack mentality.

‘The coyotes were misfits, but they came together to survive and perhaps for revenge. Now, they thrive while we decline. Be like this beast. Adapt to the new by breaking old bonds of safety. Your mouth must be red with venison for the flowers to bloom again and the ticks to recede. Face your fears directly and make them your allies against your foes. Come together at decisive points in time and scatter when countered. Always help to sabotage the complacently powerful and their defenders.’

These travelers realize their personal differences do not need to be ironed out-the diversity strengthens them. Here they can debate the most taboo subjects openly, shrouded from view of the puritans by the walls of the Black Longhouse. They have something more important now: common enemies. The missionary, the financier, the complacent monoculture that upholds them all.

As the travelers dance around the fire they revel in being both distinct and as-one. They know that their odds are low but that such difficulties only increase the glory of the fight. The future they want is yet un-defined but by taking the first step away from a failed consensus the mere possibility to building something new has been created. All of them now carry the Black Longhouse inside them.

The travelers walk out of the old growth region, through the moat of the striplings, and back into the roar of modernity. But rather than be sad as before, they see now that within this degenerating world is an abundance of new opportunities. Every decaying town is a chance to rebuild not in some nostalgic way for what it once was, but a new way to that leans forward and draws from a different and much neglected past. Many peoples, gods, and cultures united against a common old order and its increasingly hysterical defenders. What were the covenant chains of past entities on this land before colonization but the agreement that difference and divergence was fine, and could all serve a struggle against a common enemy? Such was the thought of people who lived in older longhouses. Already, one can hear the sounds of this new synthesis of forgotten old and dynamic new if one listens.

Somewhere inside a tacky suburban home at night, a clergyman (either of faith or of human resources and professional management) spots something outside the window. He peers through the glass to see the leering face of a coyote with wolf-like dimensions. The lights go dark and he screams, fumbling to bring them back on. But against one who sees in the darkness as if it was its own form of light…

In a time of monsters be the biggest baddest monster of all. And bring your friends. This ancient land demands no less of you.