Let’s face it: Halloween is going to look different this year. Maybe you’re forgoing your annual costume party or your visit to the Moundsville Penitentiary or changing up the way you do trick-or-treating. So how are you going to get your Halloween kicks in the middle of pandemic? Well, with some scary stories, of course!
Scary stories are a tried and true way to enjoy the spooky season, and I say look no further than Ruth Ann Musick’s collection The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales. Published in 1965, these stories are timeless and just the right amount of spooky. An anthology comprised of one hundred ghost stories, The Telltale Lilac Bush is divided into categories like “Deadly Visions,” “Headless Ghosts,” and “Weird Creatures.” The collection provides readers with a sample of some of the best ghost stories West Virginia has to offer (and the state apparently has a lot!). Most of the stories clock in at around two to three pages each and are written in plain, unembellished language. Musick makes it clear from the get-go that “none of the stories here were told to entertain, or frighten, or to hold anyone in suspense. Almost all of them were told or written down by someone who believed he or the teller had had a supernatural experience.”
West Virginia, for all its beauty, provides a natural backdrop to ghostly tales. Musick cites an “unending sequence of hills and valleys,” mountains, and backroads that make up “genuinely lonesome places” throughout the state. Backroads prove deadly to travelers and peddlers, as do mines and railways for the men who work on them. The Civil War was responsible for many ghostly apparitions as well, whether it be soldiers returning for loved ones or seeking to exact revenge. Then, of course, there are the ghosts borne out of the more mundane: jilted lovers, victims of catastrophe, and wronged wives can be found in spades.
Despite often suffering violent or untimely deaths, not all the ghosts contained within these stories are malevolent. Some return to point out hidden treasures, warn of disaster, or impart a message. Many a neighbor is repaid for their kindness, such as in “Aunt Betsy Barr and Her Dog” and “Big Max.” Stories such as these keep the collection from becoming overly dreary and serve to highlight that, despite its many ghost stories, the people of West Virginia are often very kind to their neighbors. In fact, several stories are rather heartwarming, such as the ghost of a miner who returns to help his friends fill their coal quota (“The Ghost of Jeremy Walker”) or a deceased first husband appearing to his wife to save her second from a mine explosion (“The First Husband of Mrs. James”).
Most of the ghost stories contained herein occurred in West Virginia, but some were brought over from the “old country.” The state saw an influx of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries when families from Italy, Poland and several Eastern European countries came to Appalachia looking for work in its mines and mills. These families brought with them their customs, folklore and ghost stories. In the section “Immigrant Stories,” Musick transcribes several ghost stories that were shared among immigrant families. Interestingly, Musick states that the stories selected show the “national beliefs” held by a group of people, citing that “Italian stories favor the theme of possession” and that the “vampire theme” is most common in Balkan stories.
What is arguably most enjoyable about this collection is that Musick transcribes the stories as they are told to her, giving them a familiar quality. The storyteller is often recounting stories as they were told to them by parents, grandparents or friends, so the reader feels they are very much getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. It adds a level of credibility to the stories, too, because they are being told not to titillate the listener but to relate what the storyteller believed was a real supernatural experience. Luckily for the more fearful reader, most of the ghosts mentioned herein seem to have completed their unfinished business on earth and are no longer seen.
Regardless of what sort of ghost story tickles your fancy, readers are bound to find something to suit them in this collection. The stories are also very short and follow no overarching narrative, so readers can jump around and read as they please without fearing any sort of spoilers. Not a fan of “ghostly children” or “murdered kinsmen”? Skip them! It won’t make the proceeding section “Omens of Death” any less enjoyable (or creepy!).
If you want to enjoy these stories but don’t have time to sit down with a book, there’s an answer for that, too: The WV Network’s YouTube channel. In addition to producing videos about railroads through the state, the WV Network has a webisode series featuring retellings from The Lilac Bush. The videos are usually no longer than five minutes and feature someone reading a story from Musick’s collection set to the sound of a crackling log fire. If you are looking for some spooky ambiance while making Halloween treats or carving pumpkins, I highly recommend checking out the WV Network’s channel! If you do have time to sit down with a book, however, make it The Telltale Lilac Bush, published by The University of Kentucky Press and available through most major retailers.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.