To the Place I Belong
The humble Internet connection allows access to the richest trove of knowledge humanity has ever assembled. With but a few simple keystrokes, you can probe the tiniest brushstrokes of the Dutch Masters, read a treatise on the Battle of Queenston Heights, and dive headlong into detailed discussions on South American cryptids. All this and more is available from the comfort of your study/boudoir/terlet. For example, did you know that the 50 states of the US contain 3141 counties? Are you checking this fact right now? West Virginia is home to 55 of these counties, the largest of which (by area) is Randolph. Randolph County, named after Governor Edmund Randolph (1786-1788), was home to the Foyle Massacre of 1752 wherein a party of Shawnee hunters murdered every living soul inside a lone homestead, apart from Elmer Foyle, a boy of fifteen out hunting rabbits at the time. Since Elmer was away at the time of the attack, only returning to hide in the bushes as the grisly murders were underway, he managed to flee and tell his lone neighbor of the raid, thereby saving David Tygart’s entire family. Are you checking this fact as well? I bet you are. Good for you. You shouldn’t believe what you read on the Internet. Or anywhere else, come to think of it.
It’s wonderful what you can find with a simple search. I’m old enough to remember having to ride down to my municipal library on my ten speed to paw over a card catalog. Who else here remembers card catalogs? Comment down below with hashtag #OldFart. But the old ways are not lost, ladies and gentlemen. What you can’t find on the Internet lies deep within the dusty physical archives of these 3141 counties, undisturbed by the probing inquiries of online dilettantes or the busy hands of weary grad students armed with handheld scanners and coolers jammed with energy drinks. For example, the truncated version of the Foyle Massacre I mentioned in the last paragraph leaves out Elmer’s firsthand accounts. Paraphrasing from his diary, he noted that the things that descended upon his family bore little more than cosmetic similarity to local Indians. The clothes and war paint matched what he had seen before along the Shawnee Trail, but the faces of the raiders looked, “as beasts of the wilde… …profane of countenance as if drawn up from the Revelation of St John hisself.” What he witnessed frightened him so profoundly that he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts as the earliest opportunity to make his way as an able-bodied deckhand aboard a whaling ship. In his last surviving letter to D. Tygart he wrote, “ye dreddeful Serpentes & Behemmoths of ye Deepe do notte trubble my brow so muche as the cowntenanfe of ye Indyan saveges I witnefd on ye hunt-traille. I canne reft eafy at Sea, & such perverfhons & blafphemys are now a worlde away.” See what sort of treasures you can find when you’re willing to put on your penny loafers and crack open an old, forgotten paper-and-leather book?
Accounts such as these are easily overlooked by online archivists. Not only are the countless personal journals of ordinary folks occupying disused attic real estate across the country, but any uncanny testimony that ends under a university library scanner is suspect and therefore likely to be ignored thanks to ordinary vagaries of memory, the spoiling effects of time, and natural irregularities arising from the challenge of describing bizarre experiences with plain language. Instead of ending up on official state websites, tales like Elmer’s either end up as errata on some paranormal website, or just keep gathering dust somewhere. In the case of Randolph County, paper records like the Foyle diary are stored in Elkins under the custody of L. S., a kindly-sounding daughter of West Virginia. She was nice enough to put me in touch with Gladys D. (not her real name), a semi-retired filing clerk from nearby Norton. Following my initial inquiry, I was assured that Gladys was the foremost authority in Randolph County on local folklore, and that if I had seen something peculiar in the woods nearby, she would be best suited to put it into context.
The Randolph County archives were brought to my attention by an astute reader on the web site whose name we do not utter (you know the one I mean). As I mentioned in my last post, I had already gone over the online state archives in search of any record of the incorporated town of Brainbash. Finding no evidence the place has ever existed proved somewhat frustrating, but considering the incredible experiences we suffered there, it was hardly a surprise. Brainbash, West Virginia reminds me in many ways of 23 Skidoo, California: a liminal jurisdiction with one foot in the standard world we occupy and the other foot in a land of dreams and folklore, where mad things frolic just out of sight. I do not know if [handle omitted at user’s request] has any firsthand experience browsing county archives in the heart of Appalachia, but I must extend only mixed thanks for the tip, as I cannot imagine a more intimidating hoard of local lore, petty gossip, interminable property line disputes, and trivial disturbances of the peace. Gladys seemed positively giddy with cussed delight that someone besides her would have the temerity to descend into the musty depths of that unassuming brick building at 401 Davis Ave.
To my shame, I first imagined Gladys as a scatterbrained, bookish sort. The combination of given name and profession suggested a certain stereotype, after all. It took but a single phone message to correct this error. Her first voicemail lasted the full three minutes allowed by my wireless carrier (which as of now is still Verizon, recent events notwithstanding). After informing me that L.S. had contacted her about assisting with some of my inquiries, she launched into a circumloquant diatribe, skirting topics ranging from the looming threat the Republicans pose to her Social Security stipend, to the vibrations from the wind farms scaring away the worms in her garden, to how the orbits of the latest SpaceX satellites match diagrams found in some unspeakable book that survived an 1872 house fire two towns over. Perhaps the oddest aspect of the message was the timbre of her voice. I confess that upon discovering I would be paired with an octogenarian West Virginia librarian, I expected a soft, slow, genteel mountain dialect. Instead, what I encountered sounded as if it hailed from Lower Manhattan and had no regrets about nursing a two pack a day smoking habit for the past half century.
I am confident that the average reader of this post will accept my word that Gladys hails from a more loquacious era, one unencumbered with the terse habits of the day, prone to a certain predisposition to prolixity better suited to a bygone epoch, one illustrated by sock hops, ice cream socials, and… I don’t know… cotillions? I am somewhat ashamed to admit that despite being in my mid-40s and basically middle class, I still have only the very faintest idea what constitutes a cotillion. I reckon I’m still a Pacific Northwesterner by disposition. Despite her propensity to chatter, she is eager to help track down the shadowy history of Brainbash.
Thanks to prolonged partial shutdowns, my working hours remain severely curtailed. Thanks to the generosity of my parents, who now live less than two hours’ drive from me, I was able to secure child care to support a few days’ in-person research. Thanks to the boisterous insistence of an old county clerk, I had myself an eager research assistant. So it was that after a brief visit to the AMHS unit at INOVA Fairfax to sign a few consent forms on behalf of my wife, I drove to Elkins. This time, I made sure to plot a direct route from Harrisonburg via US-33. I may be dumb, but at least I’m a coward. No sense risking another unarmed blunder into that weird town.
Gladys greeted me in the lobby of the archives building, gingham mask bobbing as she chattered about the contents of my last post. As had she mentioned in her rambling voicemails, she had been investigating rumors of a phantom town fitting the description of Brainbash for nigh on thirty years. She was thrilled to have read my post, as certain details match hints she has assembled over the years. As she led me to the sub-basement, she explained that losing track of settlements is common in West Virginia. It is less common to lose entire towns, but she was excited to show me some census forms from the 1880s featuring the names of incorporated towns that are nowhere to be found on any map, historical or modern.
To help make sense of this propensity for losing track of remote Appalachian settlements for my urban readers, consider the particular geology and geography of West Virginia. Most of the state’s exposed bedrock is sedimentary, ranging from Pennsylvanian and Lower Permian alluvial deposits to carbonate strata covering non-metamorphic coal beds from when the region alternated between swamplands, seabed, and shoreline. These sandstone, shale, and carbonate deposits are soft, as far as stone goes. The three relevant tectonic deformations in the area were primarily edge-on collisions with some minor strike-slip activity at the far ends of the Appalachian range. This compression beneath soft strata resulted in, for lack of a better term, wrinkly landscape. Erosion smoothed out the rugged peaks and rounded the sharp valleys, ultimately producing dense surface stippling as well as countless unspelunked caverns. Combining steep, frequent hills with frangible bedrock resulted in a smattering of tiny, unincorporated settlements peppering the winding byways. Those slopes are great for hunting and moonshine, but lousy for large-scale agriculture or urbanization.
Hardy European settlers capable of and interested in fending for themselves found this terrain more appealing than the gentler tobacco lands to the east. Traces of earlier occupation by the Adena Tribe in the Early to Middle Woodland period illustrate the land’s fertility. However, by the time Virginians turned their eyes past the Blue Ridge, they found that the Iroquois, Shawnee, and Cherokee nations had claimed the territory as mere hunting grounds, unsuitable for permanent habitation. The upshot of a state with small, isolated clusters of homes occupied by hard-bitten mountain folk is that on occasion, sufficiently small municipalities just disappear. Some of it is from attrition, some because residents actively evade authorities. This phenomenon requires no conspiracy, no malevolent interference. All it takes is the peculiar geography of the land coupled with the natural intransigence of its people.
This is not to say that no evidence of conspiracies and malevolent interference can be found, of course. Gladys proved eager to share hints and fragments from her decades plumbing the archives and collecting newspaper clippings. She started me off with a dilapidated banker’s box that, among many other old papers, included Elmer Foyle’s letters as well as a battered journal bearing the monogram E.C. stamped into the brittle leather cover.
According to Gladys, something happened in those dark hills in the 1600 or so years between the extirpation of the Adena farmers and the arrival of the Shawnee hunters. Charleston-area excavations of Criel Mound, presumed to be an Adena burial site, revealed more than the mere bones and weapons listed in the 1884 Norris report. According to the personal diary of Eubert Carpenter, a day laborer from Beverly, a noxious odor arose from the main chamber after they broke in. Among normal human remains were found at least four full coal-black skeletons which when assembled would have stood at least nine feet tall. According to Mr. Carpenter’s handwritten journal, “Prof. Thomas told us Diggers not to make publick knowledge of the dark-bones. We laid them each out on the ground end to end so to reckon a carcase size. The smallest of the four were bigger yet than a bull elk, nine foot an’ it were a inch. Us Diggers knowed it were something unholy when Col. Norris snapped one arm-bone in twain and he showed it were black as night through and through. Ain’t no bonefire what can do sech a feat I ever heardt of in all my days. Fearful dreams that night. Not a one slept sound on account of the blasphemy in that mound.” No mention was made what became of the bones, but I suspect they occupy some forgotten bin in the Smithsonian’s extensive catacombs. Unfortunately, nothing else of particular interest can be found in Mr. Carpenter’s copious notes. In contrast to Mr. Foyle, Eubert’s brush with the uncanny left him unscathed, and he returned to Beverly where he passed away peacefully in 1917. I confess I cannot help but wonder if he pocketed any of those strange bones. I still have friends at GMU with access to a mass spectrometer, and I’d be very curious to find out what they were carved from.
Alas, a few odd tales from antiquity were getting me no closer to finding out anything about the town of Brainbash (though I admit that the tale of enormous bones put me in mind of that final, oversized beast of a cultist I had to swerve around). I asked Gladys if she had any material more directly related to the matter at hand and she went to fetch a sling or bindle (I can’t be bothered to look up the proper term of art for the thing you carry rolls of paper in) crammed with neatly-rolled maps. “Now you just sit there and have a look at these and I’ll be right back.”
They were survey maps. The oldest of the bunch was written in French, dated from 1715, and its focus seemed to be on the political borders between European-controlled Virginia and the Native lands to the north and west. Through the 1750s, mapmakers seemed to care more about the navigable waterways than the details of the interior. Leafing through later maps, it seems that county boundaries west of the Alleghenies were not worth recording until after the conclusion of the War of Independence. By 1863, WV-only survey maps featured consistent county lines, with one notable exception.
Governor W. Stevenson commissioned detailed surveys of Wood, Wirt, Ritchie, Gilmer, Braxton, Webster, Randolph, Upshur, and Pocahontas counties shortly after his inauguration in March of 1869. Thanks to a Post-It note Gladys attached to the map, I became engrossed by a discrepancy in the border separating Upshur and Randolph counties between Selbyville and Czar. Today, the county line runs just south of the left fork of Buckhannon River. At the time of the Stevenson survey, it ran to the north. I now find myself wondering how many other such discrepancies exist, and for what purpose.
The audaciously dapper William Stevenson (b.1820) was so staunch an abolitionist that in 1859 that a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of sedition after he circulated Hinton Helper’s searing critique of slavery, The Impending Crisis of the South. He served as a Pennsylvania state representative before moving to the West Virginia Senate in 1864 and rounding out his political career as a one-term governor from 1869 to 1871. As a matter of public record, he did pretty well for himself. He married a second-generation Irish girl named Sarah and retired from politics to accept a sinecure as a director of the West Virginia Oil Land Company from his home in Parkersburg. In contrast, his private life seems to have been plagued by a deep and morose dread. In addition to a five-volume set of his business ledgers, Gladys had provided a thin book containing Stevenson’s documentation of his night terrors, hallucinations, encroaching paranoia, and eventual conviction that something dreadful and not entirely human stalked the wild hills of Appalachia.
I found a few worrying themes in Stevenson’s notes. First, he writes of night terrors not dissimilar to the ones I have been suffering since my return. Starting in 1854, he complains of “the corpulent night-Fetch, come of late to vex my dreaming.” He notes fortnightly visits of a ghastly emissary entreating him to “set the lines aright” (this phrase repeats regularly, finally ceasing in December of 1869). I understand. Since my troubling tour of Brainbash, I have suffered night after cursed night of screeching sweat-soaked wakenings, where I regain my wits after shrieking myself hoarse, fingers aching of premature rheumatic arthritis from clutching my thin summer bedsheets. These dreams lack any visceral horror, like gore or anything. I would characterize them as being profoundly menacing, as if something unstoppable and indifferent to my suffering pursues me. Second, I found frequent mention of noises emanating from distant ridge lines. His descriptions of the tones varied from “a comforting natural concerto reminiscent of Chopin or Schumann” (1849) to, “the unending shriek of tormented titans bound under ancient mountains (1882).” Third, he claims to have encountered, “Monstrous emissaries, four of body.” Visions of these emissaries seem to have vexed him ceaselessly during the summer of 1852, causing insomnia and fatigue. Also during this period, he wrote of Sarah’s two miscarriages and the start of her profound and lingering sadness that lifted only later in life. Many of the pages were filled with doodles that reminded me of the doofy-looking D&D-themed crap my friends and I would scribble in our 7th grade Social Studies notebooks when we should have been paying attention in class. I riffled past most of this, as, like anyone, I can stand only so many glyph-encrusted circles and slapdash drawings of werewolves.
One sketch caught my interest, however. Dated June 14, 1852, it is a surprisingly detailed pen and ink study of a nude human-type figure, skinny as the reaper from the waist up, and bloated below that. Its head was flopped open backward at the jaw, tongue lying slackly to its collarbone. I had only to imagine that this illustration were colored using white pastels to see before me an example of the people I escaped in Brainbash. The caption read “Ab Hominem Apocolothoth Convovere.” This bugged me because I don’t think the accusative is the correct case here and I am a giant dork. I think the ablative is called for. I could be wrong however. It’s been a very long time since I took high school Latin, and I was busy doodling D&D monsters in my notebook during most lectures.
Gladys all but clapped her hands when I stopped the drawing. “That it, right? That’s what you saw? Thirty years ago I found this notebook.” She paused to do some mental math. “More like forty by now. I thought I was losing my mind, I really did. And here you come along and it all starts to come together.” She effused for some time about the contents of my previous OT post and how it matched not only this diary, but a much older book of unknown provenance and anonymous authorship. According to Gladys, the name “Apocolothoth” appears periodically in the esoteric literature she’s collected, with roughly 13 years between mentions.
By this point, I am afraid that the absurdity of all this had become too much to bear. All I wanted to do was find some evidence that the town I drove through could be found in the county records, that I hadn’t dozed off on some pullout somewhere and dreamed the whole thing. Instead I got some chain-smoking crone flogging supernatural conspiracy theories in a dank basement. I asked if she had anything specifically relevant to the town in question, and she launched into another digression-laden monologue featuring nonsense about planted iron oxide layers forming hidden underground circuits meant to form a summoning blah-blah-blah. Mentions of “Brainbash” appear as marginalia in this suspiciously-absent old book she claims to keep at home in a lead-lined safe. I reluctantly confessed to her that I lacked both the patience and the inclination to indulge in some augmented reality game, as all I needed was some clue about why I had to consent to putting my wife on risperidone and trazodone.
Dejected, I got a take-out Reuben from a downtown burger joint called C.J. Maggie’s (highly recommended, get the bacon and cheddar fries) and wondered what to do next. I promised Gladys I’d be in touch, asked her permission to mention her in this very post you’re reading right now, and now here I am in a cramped room at the Mountaineer Inn typing this up and wondering what the hell to do.
Suggestions welcome in the comment section, I guess.