Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Greenbrier Ghost

I've always liked a good ghost story—especially if it's a true one. Last year, I self-published a novel, Them That Go, which had several ghost stories in it, including a true one: the Greenbrier ghost.

In one scene, a high school student relates the story of the Greenbrier ghost to her English class. If you're not familiar with the story, there are several versions of it online, and even a couple of videos. Here's one that summarizes the story:

In a chapter of Them That Go, the English class has been studying Hamlet, in which the ghost of Hamlet's father tells Hamlet about how he was murdered. The teacher asks if the students have heard any ghost stories, and—on pages 99-100— this is what Lizzie says her aunt told her:

“Well, Aunt Sarah said back in the 1890s a woman named Zona married a good-looking stranger who come to town. He worked as a blacksmith, so he was real strong. But he was real mean, too, and Zona’s mama didn’t much like him. One winter day, the blacksmith sent a boy to his house for some reason or other, and the boy found Zona dead at the foot of the steps. The boy run back and told everybody, and the doctor was fetched to see about Zona. But the blacksmith got there before the doctor and was carrying on something awful about his wife being dead. He’d even took her and put her to bed and had her all cleaned up and dressed, even though other womenfolk are supposed to do that for a woman, not the husband.”

Several girls nodded. Likely they had witnessed some home burials. A lot of folks in the county can’t afford a funeral home and have to make do the old way.

“Anyhow, the doctor didn’t get to examine her real good, what with the blacksmith carrying on and crying and hanging onto her. When somebody rode out to fetch Zona’s mama, she said that no doubt that devil had done killed her daughter hisself.”

Nobody was saying a word while Lizzie told this. It wasn’t like some of the boys to be so quiet.

“Well,” Lizzie continued, “next day, they carried Zona in her coffin out to her parents’ farm to get buried. The blacksmith stuck pretty tight to that coffin even during the wake. He put a pillow on one side of her head and a rolled up sheet on the other, which struck her family as odd, but he said it seemed like to him it made Zona more comfortable, so they didn’t mess with what he was doing. He tied a scarf around her neck, too, and said it was her favorite so she ought to be buried with it.

“Right before they closed up the coffin, Zona’s mama slipped that sheet out of the coffin. After Zona was buried and folks had left, Zona’s mama washed the sheet but couldn’t get a stain out of it no matter how hard she tried. She took it as a sign that Zona didn’t die no natural death.

“Meanwhile, she started to pray that her daughter would come to her and tell what happened. She prayed and prayed every night for nigh onto a month until Zona’s ghost appeared and said her husband had got mad and killed her. He beat her some and choked her and broke her neck.

“Zona’s mama went to a lawyer who listened to what she said and got the doctor and some deputies to look into what had gone on. They dug up Zona and examined her real good this time.” Lizzie paused to take a breath. This was the longest I—and likely everyone else—had ever heard her talk.

“What did they find out?” Susan Collins asked.

“Found out that her neck was indeed broke and her windpipe was mashed and her neck was bruised up like somebody had got a’holt of it, so they arrested the blacksmith, and he was tried for murder and sent to prison. Turns out he’d been married twice before and his second wife had died mysterious too. 

“At least that’s the story my aunt told me,” Lizzie said. “I thought it’s kind of like in Hamlet. A ghost appears and tells about a murder.”
* * *
How did I happen to include this particular ghost story in Them That Go? In late summer 2015, when I was midway through Them That Go, I asked on FaceBook if anyone knew of an Appalachian ghost story in which a ghost gave information about his or her own death. A couple of people suggested the Greenbrier Ghost. One was best-selling Appalachian novelist, Sharyn McCrumb, who'd been researching and writing her new novel—a novel, that I was later to learn, based on the Greenbrier ghost. 

At the Franklin County Library in spring 2016, when I heard her speak about her then-new novel, Prayers the Devil Answers, Sharyn gave a bit of a preview of her next book: The Unquiet Grave. When it comes out in September 2017, the cover will look like this:

Meanwhile, I just finished reading an advance reader copy that her publicist sent me. 

I'll do an "official review" on this blog in August, but I can tell you now that I really enjoyed the book. Even though I was familiar the basics of the story, Sharyn McCrumb's novelization of what happened in Greenbrier County back in the 1890s was compelling. It kept me reading way past my bedtime two nights running.

I always enjoy a good ghost story, and The Unquiet Grave was indeed a good 'un.

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