Their Stories Carved In Stone

Going on a vacation as an adult is a lot different than going on one as a kid. My family went on a lot of them. Florida, mostly, but also Niagara Falls. My first time on an airplane was to visit my grandfather in Illinois and the infamous lakeside guest house that became surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of frogs each and every night. One of my most memorable summer vacations, however, had nothing to do with staying in hotels or enjoying amusement parks, but it did involve going to one of my favorite places – the local cemetery. Their Stories Carved In Stone first appeared in the Tioga County Courier, Owego, NY – Oct. 6, 2010.

Their Stories Carved In Stone

“What did you do over summer vacation?”

Other kids in my middle school class likely answered that question with such things as going on a family vacation to Florida, maybe 4-H Camp, or just hanging out with friends around a swimming pool. I spent most of one particular summer in the Berkshire Evergreen Cemetery, voluntarily documenting and mapping the headstones.

I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries and never found them creepy to walk in, day or night. To me they are places to get away from it all, to relax, to think, to reflect on all my dreams for life. Being surrounded by death like that makes you appreciate living.  Thanks to the Internet I’ve discovered I’m not so alone in these feelings, but as a kid very few of my friends could understand my fascination and fewer still would join me in my various cemetery adventures.

One youthful journey that I made with my father reigns over them all. We were visiting family graves in Speedsville, NY at the time. I must have been eleven or twelve years old. While Dad tended to watering flowers and plants that had been brought earlier that year, I wandered around and read the tombstones. One stone quickly got my overly active imagination going. It was one of the earlier stones in the graveyard and at the top was carved a hand with a finger pointing downward. From the finger dangled three chain links, one of them broken. I was instantly convinced that finger pointing down could only mean one thing, this poor sinner was bound for Hell. When I showed Dad the stone, he didn’t know what it could possibly mean, either. The mystery would remain with me for almost thirty more years.

I started taking pictures in cemeteries in my early twenties. Whole weekends would be devoted to cemetery hunting and grave walking.  I occasionally found others to join me, but most of the time this was a solitary practice, just me and my camera. My images eventually started to focus on the intricate carvings on the headstones: the different types of flowers, trees, animals, birds, and a variety of archaic symbols, including many, many headstones with hands in various poses on them. I remembered the stone I’d seen with my father all those years ago and knew there had to be a reason and meaning behind all these things.

My serious research soon began.

In North America the earliest markers erected were generally unrefined and simple. The inscriptions, if indeed they bore an inscription at all originally, have in many instances eroded away or crumbled off. These stones are generally from what is called the Federalist Period, 1789-1850, and sometimes offer us little information. But even the crudest markers can tell us a great deal about the history of the region during this time. One of the most popular symbols displayed prior to 1850 is the funerary urn. These appear with great regularity on 19th century gravestones in all settled areas of the United States and Canada. The urn was a well-understood symbol of death and the mortality of the body. Quite often the urn was accompanied by the Tree of Life (not to be confused with the Weeping Willow symbol that will be explained later). This provided a sacred message for the living; although the individual had perished, their remains would provide the seed for new life. When this same tree appears to be growing out of the urn it expresses the Western religious understanding of the hope of everlasting life.

The urn and Tree of Life made perfect sense to me, but when I saw my first tree-stump-shaped grave marker, I was baffled. Why would anyone have a headstone shaped like a tree stump?

I discovered there was a fraternal organization called Woodmen of the World and to have the graves easily identifiable by their brothers, the headstone would be carved into the shape of a tree stump. One tree symbol led to another. The Weeping Willow mentioned earlier was a common symbol found in Great Britain during the neoclassical period (1660-1740) and was intended solely to represent perpetual mourning and grief. You will find countless depictions of the willow on grave markers from the nineteenth century in the American Northeast area as well. Oak leaves and acorns on tombs stood for power and longevity. Laurel branches often mark the graves of those who have served their countries with great distinction.

Then came the flowers: roses, poppies, lilies, and sunflowers just to name a few. Not only did each flower have a meaning, but the flowers arrangement and stage of life could tell the informed observer about the person whose remains lay beneath. This is most visible in the rose. A rose bud will most likely mark the grave of a child or young, unmarried woman, while roses in full bloom are carved on the stones of those who have led long, productive lives. A wreath of roses, or wreaths of any kind, speaks of eternity. Anything round, such as wreaths and orbs, have long been symbolic of things that are meant to last forever, just as the familiar circle, or band of gold many of us wear for a wedding band does.

In hot pursuit came the animals one finds carved on graves. The two most popular are the lamb and the dove. A lamb will mark almost exclusively the grave of an infant or a very young child. Doves can be found in various postures from sitting upright, to flying upward or downward to lying flat on their back, feet curled up in the typical image of a dead bird. As with flowers, each of the dove’s positions has a different meaning. Sitting upright means the soul of the deceased is believed to be at rest. The bird flying upward represents the soul’s transcendence into Heaven, downward it symbolizes the spirit of Christ coming down to take the soul. If the bird is flat on its back, chances are the life of the deceased was suddenly cut short.

The Freemasons, along with countless other fraternal and sorority organizations, use a variety of symbols to identify the final resting places of their members. Masons view the beehive as a symbol of industry. A beehive may also mark the grave of a Mormon. If you find a stone carved with an eagle and the number thirty-two, this marks the grave of a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason. The most common of all Masonic symbols are the compass with the square along with the obelisk-shaped headstone itself. The Ancient Order of Odd Fellows often uses a three-linked chain where one of the links is snapped open, symbolizing the severance of the dead from the living.

Wait. What? A three-linked chain with one link broken? Where had I seen that before? The Speedsville cemetery with my dad, of course!  Did that mean the deceased really wasn’t bound for Hell as I’d first imagined? I searched further and found a reference to hands, and more importantly, hands with fingers pointing in various directions. I was about to have my answer.

You’ll find a lot of hands on graves. Some hands are clearly folded in prayer. Other times, the hand of one person may be seen holding the hand of another. In the case of two different hands being held together, look very carefully. A hand that reaches down and may appear a bit larger than the one below symbolizes the Hand of God fetching up the soul of the deceased. Sometimes the cuff of a man’s shirt or a lady’s blouse has been added and this could represent the hands of a husband and wife held together for all eternity. Hands with the fingers pointing upward are meant to guide the soul in the direction of heaven. Finally, the hand with a finger pointing downward means that those on Earth have been called to witness the mortality of humanity, that the deceased has been chosen by God. My dearly departed friend in Speedsville wasn’t Hell bound after all. He was merely a member of the Ancient Order of Odd Fellows whose family had left behind a symbolic reminder of the mortality of us all. That wasn’t even close to the sinister imaginings I’d harbored all those years.

As you can see, a vast number of iconographic symbols and themes grace the headstones of cemeteries. Only a very few have been mentioned here. Gravestones are, in many aspects, works of art. Some are masterpieces, while others are representative of the crude and harsh pioneer environment our own ancestors endured.

Every grave marker has a symbolic message all its own to share, a voice waiting to be heard. These stones have stories to tell, but it takes a willing and observant person to sit down and read that message and understand the story left so lovingly behind by the family who placed it there.

What did you do over your summer?

I walked through and took pictures of what I believe to be some of the most beautiful and fascinating stone sculpture gardens ever created by man and read the stories carved in the stones of our local cemeteries.

*

Vacations, those all too brief outings and breaks we take to escape the hum drum, work-a-day life. I’m taking a spring vacation this year. It started Friday. With the weather still being cold and wet, it’s unlikely to include any cemetery visits, but you never know. We do plan on getting away from the house for a couple of days which will be nice. Maybe I’ll even finish a writing project this week.

Over the past month, a lot of time has been spent on book covers. All the Barnesville books have been rebranded. No progress to speak of has been made on what will be the fifth Barnesville Mystery. It’s not abandoned by any means, and I hope some of you are looking forward to “Death at the Devil’s Elbow”, another Murder-mystery featuring Nell, Beth, Angie, and crows whenever it is I get my writing butt in gear and finish it. I did make some nifty new trailers for “Secrets of the Scarecrow Moon” and “That’s What Shadows Are Made Of“, though, so, that’s something new to see.

We’ve finished updating the covers for “No Rest For The Wicked” and “Dark Hollow Road”, too. Next will be “The Inheritance” which I am currently doing another quick edit on. With any luck at all, the week of vacation that lies ahead won’t be all about home improvement projects, but will also see this writing project nearing completion, too. While I’m on the subject of “No Rest For The Wicked”, check out this slick new Book Trailer.

Once that’s done, I’ll put more effort into the collection of fairy tales I’ve been working on since 2005. No, that’s not a typo! I wrote my first twisted fairy tale in 2005 and I finally have enough to put into a book. “Not Your Grandma’s Fairy Tales” is close to becoming a thing at long last.

Bill The Worm’s latest “Bill The Worm Counts To Ten“, is selling reasonably well. I’ve been considering putting together a coloring and activity book. But haven’t taken any steps at this time to actually do so. He’s recently found homes in a couple of local libraries, too. I’ve also been puttering away on a non-Bill the Worm Children’s book. Top secret for right now, because I’m so darn slow and don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up too high until it’s something more concrete.

NEWS ON OTHERS:

My friend Jay Bower has a new trilogy out, Dead Blood. I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but have book one on the TBR pile. Vampires and zombies, y’all! My one regret is that I didn’t come up with this amazing idea first!

Another local author and friend, C.W. Briar recently released a collection of short stories titled, “Sticks and Stones: Tales of Childhood Horror”.  I’m eager to take a little trip back into childhood with that one – or am I?

Not long ago, I began a journey down the long and dusty trail of the Splatter Western genre by reading “The Magpie Coffin” by Wile E. Young. Splatter Western is pretty much self-explanatory. Lots of blood and guts and weirdness combined with those old Westerns your grandpa used to read. I bought the first three in the series put out by Death’s Head Press and now that “The Magpie Coffin” is behind me – hopefully way, way behind me, I’m eager to get into “Hunger on the Chisholm Trail” by E. Emmembach.

PODCASTS I’M LISTENING TO:

Bleeding Page Podcast featuring Chad Lutzke and Jason Brant, released three more Horror author interviews over the past month, Kealan Patrick Burke, Michealbrent Collings, and Zach Bohannon.

Monster Men with Jack Campisi and Hunter Shea did a great show on Janine Pipe’s recent book release, “Sausages : The Making of Dog Soldiers”.

Mr. Ballen started creeping me out this past week with his story telling podcast based on real life experiences and events.

 

 

The Devil, A Worm, & A Crow

As I begin to write this, the rising sun is shining directly in my eyes, but I refuse to cross the room and move the drapes slightly to the left. Why? Because I live in the Northeast United States and haven’t seen much sunshine since November. It seems a sacrilege to close the drapes and block out what I miss so much. It’s March now and I can hear birds chirping this morning instead of cold winds whipping around the corner of the house making the evergreen shrub thrash against the old clapboard siding. The Weather People say it’s supposed to get up to 60F later this week. That should wipe out all but the most stubborn of snow piles, at least until next November rolls around anyway.

The end of February found me going under the knife again – hopefully for the last time ever – to have the hardware taken out of my left clavicle that was put in there back in November of 2019. I’m nine days post-op and ready to get these damned stitches out on March 10th. Despite the discomfort, I can honestly say, it hurts a whole lot less now than it did on the 26th when I went in! And no, the motorcycle still isn’t fixed or fit to drive. Poor thing.

I made some good progress on the next Barnesville Chronicle last month. Death at the Devil’s Elbow is set in Owen and will see the return of everyone’s favorite witchy librarian, Nell Miller and her favorite niece, Angela Jennings Bishop. This time around Nell and Angie are helping investigate the local haunted hot-spot, the Devil’s Elbow, where a grisly and ritualistic murder has taken place. The isolated hilltop location has been home to a variety of failed businesses, the last of which was a stripper club called Naked Truths. Being as the settings for the Barnesville books are all taken directly from the small town and villages around where I grew up, a mere thirty-five miles from where I now sit, this may be the last Barnesville Chronicle written so close to the real-life scene of the crime. The times they are a’changin’ soon – but we’ll talk about that in a later post.

I managed to read two books by female authors in February for Women in Horror Fiction Month, Horror, She Wrote and The Hag Witch of Tripp Creek. You can check out my reviews over on Goodreads. I also wiggled my way into an interview at Rebbie Reviews for those keen on possibly learning more about me than you already do.

Celebrating Women In Horror – Interview with Pamela Morris

My March reading has kicked off with House of Skin by Jonathan Janz. So far, so good. This will be followed by Hunter Shea’s Slash.

March also means spring, though some of our worse snowstorms have been known to strike in March, I’m going to say it’s not going to happen this year and hope for the best. My dad, my grandmother (you know – the one who selected and bought me a Ouija board for my 13th birthday in addition to the vampire books I had initially picked out), and my daughter were all born in March. It’s a good month. Adding to the good things March has going for it, my second Children’s Book, Bill The Worm Meets Carl Crow, was released last week on March 1st.

Bill The Worm Meets Carl Crow : Trailer

I’ve already finished the illustrations for the next Bill the Worm book that comes out in late September of this year. Of course, me being me, I just had to have Bill love Halloween! Bill the Worm has an important decision to make about all that! I’ve also started writing the story for the fourth Bill the Worm book. Once the weather is warmer, I’ll be more in the mood for writing and creating.

Bill the Worm and The Devil are both nudging me in the Writing Wribs equally as hard these days. Should be an interesting battle over the summer! LOL.

A brief blog post to be sure, but it’s better than nothing!

In the meantime, I hope you all are doing well out there, staying safe, staying healthy, and hopefully looking forward to a much more normal year ahead.

Part 2 – The Murder! The Newest Barnesville Chronicle Cover Release!

It feels like forever since I’ve had the joy of releasing a new title, though it’s only been a year. Maybe because this one has been finished for such a long time, but I had to hold off on getting it out there due to other things going on. Despite those plans not working out as I’d hope and prayed, it put the project back at the top of my to-do list. Thankfully, all the waiting and work is almost over.

Part two of The Witch’s Backbone will be out and about in the world in 6-8 weeks barring any more unforeseen delays. I’ve chose my grandmother’s March birthday for it – though I’m going to have to guess the majority of you have no idea when that is.

And so, without any further delay – I’d like to present you with the official cover release for the fourth title in the Barnesville Chronicle series The Witch’s Backbone, Part 2 – The Murder.

TWB2_Cover_reduced

 If the curse is real, how do they stop it from killing them all?

“One, two, three, four and five, not much longer to be alive.”

The free-wheeling days of the summer of 1980 are over. September has inched into October and chilly autumn winds blow through the village of Meyer’s Knob. Four friends sit atop the highest hill they know of. What should be a joyful occasion is one of mourning and sadness, instead. If only they’d known the curse was true, they’d not be standing here sending their friend postmortem birthday wishes.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.”

The curse and the witch that goes with it are both real, and by the end of this particular day, they are going to come to realize their nightmare is nowhere near over. While the friends struggle to overcome their grief, they search for ways to unbind themselves from the horror that seems inescapable. They call on their local priest and they delve deeper into the world of witchcraft  – desperate and terrified.

“Ask about the murder.”

Cryptic whispers and messages from beyond the grave seem to be pointing them in a certain direction, but they don’t understand what the dead are asking them to do. Only one man knows the answer, the key that will end it once and for all, but his fear keeps him from revealing the secret to anyone, let alone a group of budding teenagers. He tried once and failed. Will the horrible knowledge passed down to him through his ancestors really work? Or is there truly only one way to end the witch’s curse, to let it play out and watch one child after another die?

If you haven’t read Part 1 – The Curse yet, you’ll want to do that before diving into this one to get up to speed on the mess the kids of Meyer’s Knob have gotten themselves into. Here’s a handy link to help you do just that.

The Witch’s Backbone Part 1 : The Curse – myBook.to/WitchsBackbone1_Curse_Morris

 

 

 

 

What Are The Barnesville Chronicles?

By some freakish twist of fate, my workplace declared a snow day on Friday. ((Only the second time a closing has taken place there ahead of a storm in the past forty years as verified \ remembered by my father)) This allowed me some unexpected extra time to work on writing.

Over the past couple weeks, the next book in The Barnesville Chronicles has been giving me some fits. I thought I was done with the first draft. Turns out, I was only half done. While working on the mess I created, it occurred to me maybe there was some clarification that needed to take place about these Chronicles.

What are the Barnesville Chronicles? Simply put, they are stories (mostly novels – there’s one short story that meets the requirements) that share the common setting of a small town in central New York State called Barnesville. In the broader sense, any location set in fictional Oneekah County is and will be a part of the Chronicles. Owen, the capital of Oneekah County in which Barnesville is located, boasts a population of less than 20,000. That should tell you a lot about the other towns and villages it presides over.

These are small town tales surrounded by acres upon acres of farmlands and forests. It’s rural and quiet. Families are tight. Nothing much is going on and life can get pretty monotonous. Everyone knows their neighbors, or do they? You think you know the man who owns the local feed store? Think again. You can trust the funeral director who’s tended to your families death needs for decades, right? Maybe not so much. What about the town librarian? Certainly she’s a good egg with nothing to hide. Not so fast.

Despite having a population of less than 2000, the influences of Barnesville and its secret witches’ coven stretch far and wide from as far back as the late 1700s to present day. The current members pride themselves on their good intentions, but this has not always been the case. Over the centuries, some have gone astray and used their powers and knowledge for more selfish and evil purposes. Therein lies the start of the layering of secrets from one town to the next.

There are ideas percolating, very few of which have been written down.  Secrets of the Scarecrow Moon, a murder-mystery, begins the series in so far as filling in readers on the founding of Barnesville and its coven back in 1790. However, it also takes place in present day. The Witch’s Backbone Part 1: The Curse is set in 1980. Another tale will take place in the mid-1990s. Some weird happenings went down around 1900. The Prohibition Era may well show up for another storyline.

Currently the Barnesville Chronicles include three titles, Secrets of the Scarecrow Moon, That’s What Shadows Are Made Of, and the two-part series, The Witch’s Backbone. Ultimately, I hope to expand on that with each new title set in a different town within the county, bringing the grand total to twelve. Whether that actually happens or not is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to give it a shot.

Finally, each story in the Chronicles will be written as independent, stand-alone tales. You don’t have to read any title in order to understand the events of another. It might be more interesting, but it will be completely unnecessary with the exception of a title that bares more than one part (ie. The Witch’s Backbone). I’ve no intention of writing them in chronological order so there’s not reason for them to be read that way beyond a reader wanting to do so. Of course, knowing that order will only be fully disclosed when the final book is released years and years from now.

Now you know about The Barnesville Chronicles and I really should get back to that bone I have to pick with a certain witch in Part 2 of The Witch’s Backbone – The Murder.

 

Creating An Urban Legend

With Dark Hollow Road out of my hair for the next couple of months, I’ve been working on The Witch’s Backbone. Thanks to NaNoWriMo last month, I was able to buckle down and decide on the opening scene and yesterday wrapped up Chapter 10. Many of you will be happy to hear that we’ve moved back to Barnesville and surrounding areas for this one. The big difference is, we’ve taken a step back in time to the summer of 1980, where Nell’s knowledge of the macabre, magic, and witchcraft probably isn’t going to be of much use.

I’ve always had an interest in old legends and folklore, especially ones that relate to a specific location or things like Bloody Mary, where you stand in front of a mirror and say her name three times to summon the spirit of Mary Worth, a woman who is reputed to have been hung for witchcraft. What happens after that, I’ve no idea. We tried it as kids. Nothing happened. There’s one about a phantom hitchhiker who vanishes from the back seat of the car of anyone who dares pick her up. Usually she’s found walking some lonely stretch of highway in the rain. Where I come from, she’s wandering around Devil’s Elbow.

Folklore takes me back to the dark old days where fairy tales are born and stories of vampire, werewolves, and witches capturing children with houses made of candy to entice them in for a sweet snack. Things like the Scottish Kelpie that normally looks like a sort of water horse, but has the ability to shape shift to fool its victims, are pretty cool. There’s Black Shuck, a ghost dog, who roams the wilds of England and the Strigoi that you might know better as a vampire. And who doesn’t love to hear the eerie and lonesome scream of the Banshee at night? Ah, what beautiful music she makes!

I toyed with the Shadow Man (or the Hat Man, as he’s also called), in my murder-mystery, That’s What Shadows Are Made Of. While doing research on that, I chanced on The Night Hag or simple just The Hag and something called Old Hag Syndrome. The name of the phenomenon comes from the superstitious belief that a witch – or an old hag – sits on the chest of the victims, rendering them immobile. Old Hag Syndrome is often used as a way to explain a medical condition called Sleep Paralysis, which is reported to also happen when The Hat Man is paying a visit.

This poem also came to mind. I can’t say who wrote it, but judging by the wording, it seems pretty old.

If at night ye dare t’roam,
along the twisted, witch’s backbone,
avert thy gaze, meet not her eye,
or cursed thy life and soon t’die.

Thee won’t find her flying o’er the trees,
but lurking amongst the molded leaves,
and crawling in the stony crags,
in the stagnant filth, this loathsome Hag.

She’ll seek you out forever after,
making thy death her cruelest laughter
as sits she upon thy sleeping chest,
to draw from thee thy final breath.

Avoid the dangerous paths she treads.
Stay safe and sound within thy bed,
for ‘tis always best to neither walk nor ride,
along the witch’s backbone at night.

I liked the whole idea of The Hag and having had some firsthand experience with Sleep Paralysis as a teenager, thus knowing the amount of terror it can generate, decided I needed to put my spin on that piece of ancient folklore in the form of a small town urban legend. Thus was born The Witch’s Backbone.

Every kid in the area knows the rhyme associated with the witch and when twelve-year-old Tara Fielding finds herself staring back into the eyes of what she believes to be that loathsome hag, she freaks out. She and her friends decide the only way to know if the legend is true or not, (and to learn if Tara is about to meet an early death) is to spend the night camping near where she claims to have made eye contact with the creature. It’s an area in the woods, halfway between the county dump and the rocky ravine the witch is reported to haunt known as The Witch’s Backbone.

Good times, my friends, freaky good times!

Write On!

*Paperback Release* Secrets Of The Scarecrow Moon

It’s almost spring in Barnesville, New York. That could only mean one thing. It’s time for people to go to their secret places in the dead of night and get to work. In basements, in barns, in the old shed out back, curtains are drawn and lights glow into the wee hours. Ssshhhh. Listen. Listen hard. Maybe it’s just the wind rustling something outside on the dark, empty street. That’s probably all it is, a breeze that makes something shuffle up your porch steps and flutter against the screen door. Care to go peek? Care to open the door and step outside as the Scarecrow Moon rises full and bright over a sleepy, little town that has kept a very dark and bloody secret for over two hundred years?

Barnesville is an odd, little town smack dab in the middle of nowhere and according to my calculations, we have about a month until the rising of the Scarecrow Moon. Of course, that doesn’t mean much of anything to anyone who lives outside of Barnesville, but you might want to bone up on your knowledge if you plan on passing through that way the first weekend of May and decide to check out the Scarecrow Festival they’ll have going on.

A Scarecrow Festival in May? Aren’t those something that’s usually done in the Fall? Yes, but Barnesville isn’t like other small towns in the Southern Tier of New York State and it has its reasons for doing what it does. Most people don’t know exactly what those reasons are, but you can find out by investigating the death of Peter Wakeley along with amateur sleuth Angela Jennings in my latest paperback release, SECRETS OF THE SCARECROW MOON.

Buy, my children, buy!