Huzzah, fall is here at last! My favorite season of sunlight caught in autumn leaves and chilled breezes. Granted, summer had its highlights. My family met with fellow indie author Anne Clare’s family in July for a day, and it was…oh, just a day to fill the heart. Our kids played together, Bo got to catch up with his longtime friend, Anne’s husband, and I got to sit and talk with Anne about life, storytelling, reading–the lot.
Bo and I also took our three Bs northward to Eagle River for a few days of mini-golf, fishing, and swimming. No Paul Bunyan days, sadly, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t bring Biff and Bash near any chainsaws.
Actually, that trip northward is why I changed my topic for today’s post. I originally intended to discuss everyday absurdities and how they can play nicely into humor writing (don’t worry, we will get to that before 2021 is over), but visiting a Wisconsin “monster” got me thinking about the oddities created where we are and how they can inspire our storytelling.
Back in October 2018 I shared a few of Wisconsin’s peculiarities with the fantastic author Shehanne Moore. This land is the birthplace of an infamous source of inspiration for horror and suspense icons. Tucked among the rocks is a house so strange the gods didn’t even believe it could be real. The state’s stunning natural beauty hides dangers both imagined and…well, “discovered” by lumberjacks.
I wasn’t able to touch much on the history of this local monster in previous posts, so allow me to share a few highlights from The LaCrosse Tribune. The beast was first mentioned in the news back in 1893 by a lumberjack named Gene Shepard. Reports transitioned from killing hodags to capturing a live one that was then exhibited at a county fair in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Was the beast real? Well, its hide was made of actual animal hides, so there’s that. It also moved about in its cage (thanks to the puppetry work done by Shepard’s friends), causing many to cry out in fear as they were shuffled quickly through the small, dim tent “for their safety.” Shepard did confess to his prank…well, after East Coast newspapers picked up on his story and hailed it as a scientific discovery. Shepard’s life took a downturn, and Rhinelander did not mourn his death in 1923. After about a decade, though, the town started to take a liking once more to the Hodag, using it as a mascot for schools, businesses, and the town itself. You can get a really nice detailed history from this Wausau Daily Herald article if you’re interested.
Why oh why would Shepard make up something like this Hodag, and how on earth could the story have been considered legit? First, there are Native American legends to give a bit of history to this “discovery.” The Anishinaabe spoke of an “underwater panther” called the Mishibizhiw, whose depictions in art strike a number of similarities to the Hodag. Lumberjacks could have easily seen such art and spread the tale through the woods of Canada and down into the Midwest. The Wausau Daily Herald article then notes that the lumber industry was stagnating at that point in Wisconsin, and in the North Woods, the lumber industry was EVERYTHING. Plus, it’s important to add that towns in the northern half of Wisconsin are often very small, and very widespread among the forests there. Wisconsin’s got a lot of farmland, sure, but that mainly lies in the southern half of the state. North, only small farms took hold in the wilderness. In fact, driving by such farms in my youth inspired one of the settings in my Fallen Princeborn series. They are isolated and alone in the unknown, and when one’s walled in among endless tall pines, maples, oaks, and birches, the calls of cougars, bears, wolves, and eagles can sound like just about anything.
Imagination is a powerful thing. All it takes is a single sight, a single sound, a single story to manifest into that which cannot be forgotten. Even if the legend transforms year to year, its root remains the same.
Or in another case, its face.
A lone doll in an attic window may not sound like much of a story, but in a small, isolated town in Minnesota, that doll has been the source of many stories ghostly and tragic. The Janesville Doll, as it is known, sat in this window for decades. It watched my parents travel to Minnesota for college. It watched me travel to Minnesota for graduate school.
Oh yes. I saw this doll, and I saw it often. It was impossible not to when driving at night through Janesville and the only light upon the street came from that attic window. The doll transformed into a dark specter at night, its features lost until dawn. Some say it walked the attic. Some say it cried out in the night. Some say it was a memorial created by parents who regretted isolating their daughter from the town only to discover her hanged in her room. Some say the doll was an old man’s revenge against the community after its children mocked his disabled grandson and drove the child to hang himself. Some say it was just a curious discovery by a local antique collector who wanted to display something in the attic window and left it there. Some say the truth is locked away in the town’s time capsule, only to be revealed in a hundred years.
No matter what some say, the legend left its porcelain handprint upon the Midwestern imagination. Years later I still think upon that doll, and I think on what could be–not likely, and yet–true.
BLUE HOUSE DARE
You stand outside Blue House with a candy bar in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.
Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1903, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That a bunch of football players can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.
You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.
Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.
So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.
Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house. Is that…fuck, there’s a doll in the window. Shit, that’s creepy.
Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.
The hell is wrong with you? You asked, even laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the right ear marks all of them. His glare shut your laugh up quick enough.
Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.
Comments or feedback on the tale so far? It’s a strange yet delightful pleasure, writing these Outer Limits style stories. 🙂 Perhaps a look into your own local lore will uncover peculiar tales that are bound to spark something new in your storytelling, something strange, something that could not be told anywhere else but where you are.
Time to start digging.
I’m really excited to share the rest of this story with you next month, as well as a little conundrum I have with worldbuilding here. Another author interview is on its way, too! Plus, Blondie promises to share some of her latest story with us, and yes, I AM going to talk about humor for realsies. After watching my children interact with a Hodag, how can I not?
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!