23 June 2016


Robert Damon Schneck. The Bye Bye Man and Other Strange-But-True Stories. Tarcher Perigree 2016. (2nd revised edition)

Robert Schneck is the author of Mrs Wakeman and the Antichrist, a collection of weird and wonderful incidents from American history, including the invention and successful testing of a remarkably effective auto-decapitation device. The present book was originally published as The President’s Vampire and in this new edition contains further research on the eponymous monster.
It covers a wide scope of American history, starting with the mysterious, never quite findable, attackers of the New England township of Gloucester in Colonial times. Schneck draws out the similarities between these phantom French militiamen (or were they Native Americans, or an alliance of the two?) and later mystery attackers, such as the extraterrestrial ‘goblins’ that attacked the Sutton family of Kelly, Kentucky, who feature in the UFO canon, and the aggressive Bigfoots of Ape Canyon in the Pacific North-west, which featured in Schneck’s earlier book. And of course phantom guerilla attackers who can never quite be caught, provide the main plot device for the 1976 film, Attack on Precinct 13.

Times of change and uncertainty, such as the immediate post-Revolutionary period in America provide rich picking for fraudsters, especially of you could exploit the then-contemporary craze for treasure hunting, by convincing a group of local farmers and tradesmen that the spirits of the dead will lead you to a buried fortune. Of course this will require a down-payment in cash, although it’s not clear where the spirits are expected to spend this. If this also involved the duped individuals being scared witless in ludicrous midnight ceremonies, so much the more satisfying.

A book recently reviewed in Magonia, Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State, examines the social background to the era of The God Machine. It’s often forgotten that much of the interest in Spiritualism and psychic activity in the nineteenth century was part of a search for a scientific and logical view of the universe, rather than a retreat from it. John Murray Spear was a minister in the Universalist Church and an active campaigner for progressive social causes. He spoke in favour of women’s rights, and helped organise the ‘Underground Railway’ which provided an escape route to Canada for slaves fleeing from the southern states.

Linking himself to the burgeoning Spiritualist movement, he began receiving messages instructing him in the creation of a ‘New Messiah’ a bizarre electrical construction, which when complete would lead to the inauguration of a new era of mankind on earth. He began construction of this at the town of Lynn, in Massachusetts, which itself had a strange and rather Lovecraftian history. There is no very clear description of what the new Messiah actually looked like – Spear did not have such things a circuit diagrams, for instance, the guiding spirits just seemed to make it up as they went along, aided by Spear’s total ignorance of anything technical. I am somehow reminded of Mr Hutchison’s Amazing Machine from a later era.

Well as we know by now, the gizmo did not inaugurate an era of peace and love, but although his dream collapsed, unlike some other failed prophets Spear went on to spend the rest of his life continuing to campaign for his causes, and seems to have passed on to his Maker (electrically powered or not) a reasonably contented man.

Unlike 'The President’s Vampire'. I won’t say too much about this, except to say that, like so much else, it was all got up by the meeja!

Spring Heeled Jack is something that has always fascinated us here at Magonia, and we have published a number of articles showing examples of the Leaping Wonder from more recent years than the conventional Victorian chronology. Schneck finds an example from 1951 in a housing project in Baltimore, originally built to house war-workers in local factories, but by the time of the incidents rapidly declining into poverty – the sort of fringe, liminal area which featured in many of the traditional Spring Heel Jack tales.

Poverty and urban decay also appear to be factors in the mysterious disappearance of four African-American boys in Newark, New Jersey, in 1978, but this mystery seems to be not so much Fortean as forensic.

In Mrs Wakeman, Schneck described the panicky response of some communities in the early years of the last century to the introduction of the Ouija board, originally as a plaything but later seen as a means of contacting the ‘Dark Side’. That is certainly how the protagonists of The Bye Bye Man interpreted it. A group of three friends living in Wisconsin began playing with a board, and soon seemed to find themselves in contact with something calling itself the Bye Bye Man. A semi-coherent background to this entity began to emerge, which seemed to identify itself as the shadowy survival of a serial killer. It would be a spoiler to give too much away (this chapter is preceded with what is called in today’s academic circles a ‘trigger warning’), but the three people involved began to experience a string of very unsettling events.

Schneck compares this to the experiments conducted by a psychical research group in Canada, who consciously created a ghost-like entity called ‘Philip’, although in the case of the Wisconsin trio the Bye Bye Man was anything but consciously created. Following on from its original publication, Schneck tries to discover if there is any factual background to this story, based on clues from the communications received through the Ouija board. This leads to an exploration of some very disturbing byways of American life, and an examination of some of the ways in which the paranormal might be seen to interact with real life.  A film based on the story of The Bye Bye Man is shortly to be released.

Any book which has a character listed as John ‘Skinny’ Rimmer in its index naturally draws my attention. The attenuated Mr Rimmer was a cave explorer and striking miner from Wyoming, who whilst working on a farm in that state discovered a curious mummified body of a small, strange looking creature. Or maybe he didn’t, as John’s daughter later gave a totally different account. But the mummy seemed real enough, and Schneck tracks its movements around the US until it disappears, as mysteriously as it was found, probably in a museum in Chicago. Or maybe not. But he does provide a tentative identification of what it might have been. Mr ‘Skinny’ Rimmer was not available for comment.
  • John ‘Putting On a Bit of Weight These Days’ Rimmer.

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