Sunday, March 3, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: The Busybody Ghost

I do not by any means confine my idea intake to the Fortean Times, nor to recent nonfiction; nor,heaven forfend, to nonpartisan nonfiction. This week I've been reading one of the older books in my collection of Forteana: Unbidden Guests: A Book of Real Ghosts, by William O. Stevens; Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1945. Mr. Stevens was an English professor and author, with an axe to grind about survival of bodily death. He's for it, and in this book mines the literature and his own acquaintance for cases he feels are persuasive and interesting.

Much in here is familiar, or at least routine; and how persuasive anybody finds any of it will vary quite a bit, but that's neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned. The story's all I care about; and in Chapter IX, Postscript, Section II "Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense," he gives me one that's entirely new to me. He's got hold of a pamphlet by a late 18th/early 19th-century Baptist minister describing (with a variable amount of theoretically checkable detail) a very odd tale of something that happened in an unnamed "Maine seaport village, which, one may guess from internal evidence must have been near Machiasport." The pamphlet reprinted a bunch of affidavits with first-person accounts of the phenomena, interspersed with a lot of theology, but the story Stevens extracts from what is probably a tedious read is bizarre enough for anybody.

In August of 1799, a spectral voice announced that the speaker would appear soon. On January 2nd (not what I would have called "soon") the voice returned, addressing the family of Captain Paul Blaisdel, identifying herself as the late Mrs. George Butler, and asking that her father, David Hooper, be sent for.

This kicked off a series of over 25 visitations, witnessed in many different places around the village by many different people, including the Baptist minister, who saw Mrs. Butler appear to him as a brilliant light in a field while he was on his way to debunk this obvious superstitious hoax. Some people heard her, some people saw her faintly, and some people saw her clearly; believers and non-believers saw and heard her; her friends and family received proofs that convinced them; and Mrs. Butler high-handedly ordered people about, held court in the Blaisdells' cellar, popped in on folks in other families unexpectedly, made predictions that came true, arranged a marriage against the wishes of everyone involved, arranged to be seen up close and personal by masses of people at once, responded to local gossip, insisted on the exhumation and reburial in a different location of a baby's grave, and generally was a nuisance for about half a year.

And then stopped. As these things eventually do; for believe it or not, Mrs. Butler is not the only discarnate entity ever to set an entire community on its ear. The celebrated Bell Witch Case is even more bizarre (so bizarre that the movie a few years ago toned down phenomena and left out most of the really good bits), and lasted even longer, and incidentally the Bell Witch also interested herself in the marriage of a member of the family she chiefly manifested among.

The heart of the supernatural novel to be derived from this obscure case, I think, lies in that marriage, which Mrs. Butler insisted on arranging between her husband and Lydia Blaisdel, a daughter of the family in whose cellar she liked to meet visitors. Local skeptical gossip explained the entire series of events as a hoax got up by Lydia to get her a husband; about which Stevens (relying for all this information, remember, on a single source, his pamphlet) says:

The girl protested tearfully that she would never marry a man who was scared into matrimony by a ghost. Her parents and his joined in opposing the idea. Once that summer Lydia tried to board a vessel lying in the harbor bound for York, where she had friends with whom she could stay. But it was all in vain. Somehow, in the end, the various parties came together in agreement and Lydia Blaisdel became George Butler's second wife. Within twenty-four hours of that wedding the Specter came to the husband and said, "Be kind to Lydia, for she will not be with you long. She will have but one child and die within the year."

I don't know about you, but the urge to rescue that poor girl, even if only in the pages of a novel, rises in me at once! Or her tragic story could be the background of a modern tale in which Mrs. Butler attempts to boss around a new generation, and the ghost of Lydia joins forces with the living girl to keep history from repeating itself.

Even Mr. Stevens, who is well-disposed towards his ghosts generally, admits that the whole affair seems pointless and even counterproductive. Mrs. Butler frightened and bullied people, made predictions without any helpful hints on how to avoid undesirable fates, arranged a marriage for her husband that ended well for nobody, caused considerable inconvenience for the Blaisdel family, possibly improved the local tourist trade, and went away again.

Real life, of course, often is pointless and counterproductive. Fiction requires more structure than that. But there's plenty of material here. One need only arrange it to have a point and be productive.

It would have made a decent X-Files episode, come to think of it. Scully would've put Mrs. Butler in her place, count on it!

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