Ghost Stories of the American South

So once the Slender Man began popping up in this thread, I could have sworn something about it seemed familiar. I’m an amateur folklorist, so I had a few source books lying around. It took me a while, but I finally found something in W.K. McNeil's Ghost Stories of the American South. Most of the tales collected are transcripts of recordings other folklorists made, but McNeil compiles them and offers notes. A really handy book. So anyway, this particular story appears in the book’s seventh section, “Other Supernatural Creatures.”

Well, I’ll you, when I was younger, a cousin of mine came to live with us. He was older than me and my sisters – maybe sixteen or seventeen – and we was the only folks he had left in the world, really. And he was the awfulest liar you’d ever know, anything he’d tell you was a lie, almost. I liked him all right. We slept in a loft during the summer because it was cooler up there, me and him, and in the winters we slept on the floor closer to the stove. My sisters had their own room.

So one night my cousin wakes me up by punching me in the shoulder, and it’s summer so we’re up in the loft, and my first thought when he wakes me up is to just push him out, because I’m not happy at being waked up, you know? But before I can say anything he puts his hand over my mouth and even though it’s dark I can hear that he’s scared. “Listen,” he says, and so I listen real careful. It’s this scratching, like something on the roof, and the roof is right over our heads, mind you, ‘cause we’re in the loft. I was a trifle rattled, but I wasn’t having none of it. “So?” I says to him. “It’s just some raccoon or a cat.”

“No,” says John, “I heared it before I waked you up, it’s like footsteps, like someone’s walking up there.” I wasn’t taking no truck with that, I told you he was the awfulest liar. So I went back to sleep, but the next day my cousin tried to tell Pap about it, and Pap wasn’t having no truck with it, either. But one night later on, while we was all having supper, Pap sent out my youngest sister to fetch water from the pump we had in the back. After a while we heared Lily scream, and it was Ma who got up first, and then Pap. The rest of us stayed at the table because we was like to get in trouble if Lily was hurt and we was there to gloat. Soon enough, though, we heared Pap and Ma shouting too, so me and John went out to see if they needed our help. All they had was the water pail Lily carried out, and there wasn’t no other sign of her.

At first I didn’t understand what was going on, with both Ma and Pap shouting, and by that time my other sisters come out and they started crying, and my cousin was just standing there in the yard looking off toward something. “It’s the man walking yonder!” he yells, and he’s pointing out across the field. No one’s listening to him but me, and he keeps saying it: “It’s the man walking yonder! It’s the man walking yonder!”

You already know it was suppertime, so you know the sun was setting and it was hard to see. But when I looked out over that field at the back of the house, the whole thing was lit up orange, and there was a row of big black trees that was the edge of the woods, you know? And I swear to you that I saw one of them trees moving, like a man walking away. But it couldn’t have been a man, ‘cause there ain’t no man that tall and skinny.

Pap seen it, too, I think. He took us inside and locked all the doors, and he made us keep still while he got out his rifle. We waited like that all night, Ma crying the whole time. When the sun come up we took a wagon into town and told folks what happened, though as I recall nothing much came of it. John ran off a few weeks later, and we got a new house closer to the mill where Pap worked. I still can’t manage to look at trees during sunset though, especially not on windy days when they all move back and forth, like a man walking away.

A Negro family moved into our old house. Their son got executed for murder, I hear.

Here are McNeil’s notes on the story from the end of the book. He is assigning it motifs as outlined in Ernest W. Baughman's Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America.

W.K. McNeil:

Collected September, 1963, by Ezum Cathill from an un-named seventy-year-old white male in Berea, Kentucky. The informant obviously believes the events occurred and presents them as a personal experience. The opening makes it unclear whether or not the informant is using the story as a conversation piece (which would make its apparent melancholy less sincere) or if he is responding to a question posed by Cathill. Regardless, the informant is obviously skilled at telling stories, going so far as to incorporate limited characterization and dialogue.

From a purely narrative standpoint the tale still has issues: the informant and his cousin’s experience with sounds on the roof as well as the misfortune of the Negro family appear to have no connection with the central action of the story, yet the informant includes the details anyway, either as embellishment or because he believes there is a correlation. Similarly, the revenant is never fully explained, and the informant and his family seem to have no prior experience with such a creature which, given its sparse description, can hardly be classified. The lukewarm response of the other citizens upon hearing the story is perhaps indicative of the story’s strange rootlessness. In short, this tale appears to be a collection of unrelated if tragic events that occur for no discernible reason.

Only obvious motif is R10.3 “Children abducted.” Other relevant motifs may include E275 “Ghost haunts place of great accident or misfortune” and E402 “Mysterious ghostlike noises heard”; more tenuously, one might also apply D940 “Magic forests” or F990 “Inanimate objects act as living.”

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