16 August 2019

A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

Charles F. Gritzner. North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends. Blair, NC. 2019.

Have you ever stood on a dark, windy hilltop in the middle of the night, shivering in the cold, trying to keep warm with a Thermos flask of coffee, watching for lights in the ink-black sky; wondering whether those lights were from distant cars, aircraft, meteors, satellites, swamp-gas, extraterrestrial spacecraft, or pranksters with a flashing light rigged up on the roof of a parked car?

Well if you were in Warminster in the nineteen-sixties and 'seventies (or even the 2000's in some cases) then you probably have. Charles Gritzner is someone who has shared that experience with you, although his lights are thousands of miles away in North Carolina.

The 'ghost light' phenomenon may not be as widespread on this side of the Atlantic as it is in the USA, and in the USA it seems nowhere is it more widespread than in North Carolina. I think most people familiar with Fortean phenomena will at least have heard of the 'Brown Mountain Lights', and they are in this book, although the author saves them pretty much to the last.

But there are many other intriguing luminous phenomena scattered plentifully about the state, and Charles Gritzner has made it his target to witness them all. Or at least visit their locations as some seem to have retired from active service. Gritzner is a geographer, and has lectured on 'geomythology' and the 'geography of the paranormal', which he describes as being “on the margins of traditional geographical enquiry.” Maybe, but I'd still like to have been at one of his lectures!

He takes a traditional geographical approach to his topic, closely examining the locations of the phenomena, studying the immediate environment, and looking, wherever possible, for an explanation in conventional scientific terms. However, he also takes a sociological approach to the subject, and attempts to put the lights into historical context, as well as surveying folklore and local legend and rumour.

North Carolina appears to be the epicentre of ghost-light phenomena in the US, and he puts this down to a number of factors. It is a state which has an unusually high rural population, scattered in small settlements, so the phenomena is not obliterated by the lights of big cities. It is also a region which was settled very early by colonists from the British Isles who brought much of their native folklore with them – a folklore which included will-o-the-wisps, corpse-lights, boggarts and fairies.

This was overlaid by a later folklore, as the settled communities began to interact with their new environment and the new people they came into contact with. Much of the folklore surrounding the North Carolina lights involved railways, and in the gazetteer of lights which comprises most of this book a great proportion are situated on or adjacent to railway lines, and specifically bridges.




There is a consistent story which occurs over and over again at different locations, that lights along the lines are the result of a tragic accident. Usually this involves a railway worker, driver, fireman or unfortunate passenger who was decapitated in a crash or explosion. The light represents the lantern his spectre is carrying as he, or in one or two cases she, searches for the missing head. Although, as the author points out, it is difficult to understand how the headless revenant would be able to find their head without the use of their eyes!

Gritzner meticulously researches the alleged history of these stories, and in some cases does find an historical incident which may have been the origin of the legend, but more often than not it seems that this is a sort of standard explanation that has been attached to widely separated light phenomena. If fact some 'lights' although reported in one or other source, were completely unknown to local residents, libraries and historical societies, and appear to have been made up out of whole cloth. Lights which were visible at one time have faded from view, often when the railroad tracks they hovered over were lifted in the 1970s, but others stayed on despite the removal of the iron way.

The author speculates on the role that the tracks may have played in creating the phenomenon, either by some trick of reflection, or the metal itself attracting an electrical phenomenon, but he does not pretend that any one explanation can account for all the lights. This is a book as much about stories, legend and rumour as it is about physical phenomenon.

Gritzner has visited all the locations he writes about, and in quite a few cases has witnessed the lights himself. Sometimes he has been able to deduce an explanation, but mostly finds there to be no really convincing explanation. In some cases he has been able to determine that the reported phenomenon was clearly a joke or a hoax, and in other instances the reports were so vague that it is likely nothing was ever seen at at the alleged site. When reading about the individual cases it would be useful for the reader to be able to access Google Earth, as locations are given very precisely and it is possible to imagine yourself at the spot as the author describes the phenomenon.

Towards the end of the book Gritzner tells us about his visit to Brown Mountain, and reports a spectacular array of lights across a wide area. These seem to be a true anomaly, with many thousands of witnesses over decades. They seem to have a great deal of documented history behind them as well as a tradition of folktales. I have no idea what might be going on there, and neither does the author, but of all the lights – and stories of lights – that he encountered in his extensive journeying, this is the display that impressed him most.

This is an interesting and enjoyable account of a search that did not end in any simple explanation for the phenomena, but reveals the complexity involved in studying any Fortean phenomenon 'in the wild'. I'll never visit North Carolina, but I found myself drawn into its mysteries through the accounts in this book. – John Rimmer.

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