Sunday, December 20, 2015

A call for Western Maryland weirdness

As an ongoing research project, I hope to compile an exhaustive list of Western Maryland weirdness. Whether it’s factual, fanciful or in dispute, I’d like to know about anything in Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick counties that might qualify as unusual, unexpected, anomalous, paranormal or legendary. Categories of interest include, but are not limited to:
  • Odd roadside sights, attractions or tourist traps, current or historical.
  • Ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists and hauntings, in public or private locations.
  • Cryptids, mystery animals and varmints.
  • UFOs, will-o-the-wisps and ball lightning.
  • Portents, omens, premonitions and predictions that came true.
  • Unsolved or unusual crimes or disappearances.
  • Hoaxes, pranks, wild claims and public stunts.
  • Eccentric organizations, businesses, causes, political candidates and individuals (present company excepted).
  • Conspiracies, scandals and parapolitics.
  • Odd historical episodes, distinctions, personalities and artifacts.
  • Anomalous geographies, geologies, landscapes and ecosystems.
  • Buried or hidden treasures.
  • Cameo appearances by the famous or infamous, whether natives, transplants or travelers passing through.
  • Odd or controversial place names.
  • Unusual disasters, deaths and escapes.
  • Unusual epitaphs, gravestones, tombs or burial sites.
  • Unique buildings, structures, statues, monuments and markers.
  • Outsider and visionary artists and their built environments.
  • Unique rituals, holidays or customs.
  • Unexpected course offerings, academic researches or experiments.
  • Manias, crazes and mass hysterias.
  • Urban legends, modern myths and beliefs that ain’t so.
I also seek recommendations for books, websites, archives and experts who delve into such local things. I need, obviously, all the help I can get.

Please feel free to forward this to anyone who might have a tip, or a story to tell. In any eventual publications that arise from this research, I pledge to give credit wherever it’s due, though I will honor requests for anonymity provided I know who the informant is.

I also concede that weirdness knows no borders, so if you know of such things in contiguous counties of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as other parts of Maryland, please pass them along, too. I am chiefly interested, however, in Maryland’s skillet handle, where the state is only one county wide, and yet so deep.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The legend of the belled buzzard

Illustration from The Sylva Herald.

Jerome Clark devotes a chapter of his book Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena (Visible Ink, 2013; 3rd ed.) to the legend of “the belled buzzard”: a buzzard with a bell hung around its neck, which rang, as if in warning, as the bird flew overhead (pp. 233-242).

For decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, scores of sightings of the belled buzzard were reported in small-town newspapers in multiple states, mostly the Southeast. For example, Clark cites several here in Maryland:
  • ·         Hagerstown: “The original belled buzzard” captured “on the towpath of the canal,” 23 April 1930 (p. 240).
  • ·         Woodpoint: Belled buzzard seen in this Hagerstown neighborhood, February 1931 (p. 236).
  • ·         Harford County: Belled buzzard as a harbinger of a buzzard flock numbering “some 500,” presumably without bells, January 1935 (p. 236).
This creature belongs in the realm of folklore more than fact. Even assuming the existence of one such unfortunate bird, it could not possibly have lived so long or ranged so far, encumbered as it was. But the existence of multiple belled buzzards, in the numbers suggested by the newspaper reports, is equally unlikely.

An 1893 sketch, via Matt Jaeger's blog.
Various origins were claimed for the apparently-not-so-unique bird. Was the bell attached by cruel pranksters, or by a vengeful farmer, or did it get there accidentally, while the buzzard was feeding from a cow’s carcass? Most published reports offered no explanation at all. It was just one of those odd things people claimed to see, from time to time.

Given the mystery, I’m tempted to call the belled buzzard a UFO, one long predating the post-World War II UFO phenomenon in the United States. It certainly was an Unexplained Flying Object, if not an Unidentified one.

As with later UFOs, many of these reports could have been simple misidentifications. Once the legend of the belled buzzard was planted in people’s minds, simply seeing a distant buzzard while simultaneously hearing a ringing cowbell, dinner bell or school bell might have counted as a sighting, even though bird and bell were linked only coincidentally.

And of course, newspapers back then were prone to reprint tall tales and outright hoaxes, just to fill space and entertain readers. (Digression: Such observations are sometimes made in a superior tone, as if the media are more trustworthy now, but I’m not so quick to make that assumption, given how much preposterous “news” and other misinformation clogs our email inbox, our social-media feeds, our presidential debates. Our tools have evolved, but our tastes in reading, and our gullibility, are stubbornly unchanged.)

Still, the possibility exists that somewhere, someone did manage to hang a bell on a buzzard’s neck, before it flew away. Maybe that happened in more than one place, involving more than one person. Or maybe the person who initially managed the trick just kept doing it.

Whatever its origin, the legend percolated through popular culture for a while. An old-time fiddle tune is titled “The Belled Buzzard.” Irvin S. Cobb’s short story “The Belled Buzzard” (Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 28, 1912) makes fictional use of the legend. Blogger Matt Jaeger writes about Cobb’s story, provides a reproduction of the cover, and earns extra points for using the adjective “tintinnabulous.” Cobb’s story is here, but be warned: I counted 14 instances of the N-word.

Yes, I’m writing a story about all this. Thanks for asking.

And I noticed, only moments before I posted this, that the cover date on that “Belled Buzzard” issue of the Saturday Evening Post is Sept. 28, the same month and date on which I was unaccountably inspired to blog about this subject, exactly 103 years later. Some would dismiss this as coincidence!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Happy birthday, Sydney

Sydney in our Abingdon, Va., hotel room in August 2015, celebrating that she had, indeed, remembered to pack her jeans.
This is the time of year when I pick up, then discard, scores of birthday cards, because none is even half adequate to convey my feelings for Sydney Bowling Duncan.

Clarion 2016: I'm teaching Week Three

Caption: This is one of my favorite photos from Clarion 2013, my previous stint teaching the six-week workshop in San Diego. Patrick Ropp (right) clearly is not at all intimidated by Jessica Cluess (middle), while Marie Vibbert (left) hopes in vain that the instructor will intervene.
I'm honored to be teaching Week Three of Clarion 2016 in San Diego, in a lineup that includes (in teaching order) Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, Victor LaValle and the team of Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman -- plus, of course, the students.

I look forward to meeting my new colleagues!

Applications will be accepted Dec. 1, 2015, to March 1, 2016. If you're a seriously aspiring writer of science fiction, fantasy or horror, broadly defined, and you have time for a six-week immersion in the field in summer 2016, you should apply to Clarion -- and, while you're at it, to Clarion West, too.

If you're wavering, let me know, so that I can talk you into it.

For those keeping count, I am a Clarion West alum (1994) who has taught Clarion West twice before (2005 and 2015) and Clarion twice before (2004 and 2013). Clearly I haven't broken the thing. I consider these teaching gigs to be my top honor in the field thus far -- not that I don't appreciate the awards attention, too.

(Apologies for letting this blog lie fallow for so long. I thought this announcement was a good excuse for reviving it.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Alan Turing in South Carolina, 1937

In December 1937, while at Princeton, the young mathematical genius Alan Turing traveled with his friend Venable Martin to visit Martin's hometown, which Turing's biographer calls only "a small town in South Carolina."

Turing wrote home that it was "quite as far south as I had ever been -- about 34 degrees."

This is good for only seven lines in Andrew Hodges's Turing biography, but of course it interests me, as my hometown of Batesburg, S.C. is on the 33rd parallel. Nearby Columbia, the capital city and home of my undergraduate alma mater, is on the 34th. I wonder where exactly Turing was?

Incidentally, Turing wrote home of South Carolina: "The people seem to be all very poor down there still, even though it is so long since the civil war."

Source: Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Burnett Books, 1983; Princeton UP, 2014), p. 180.