Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ham-Farir: “In Consequence of Haunted Lives” (21 September 2014)

"Whenever I think that the time for horror and terror has passed; and that I should write no more—I reflect back on those stories we were told about the Dier, and I tremble."
-        Daniel Westforth Whittier (from the Preface to The Faring, 2008)

Autumn has always been a time, for me, of poetic experience and the telling of strange tales.  Hauntings, stories of the macabre and the grotesque, ghosts and vampires and – more recently – zombies, seem to come to life for me especially in the autumn of the year, when the growing season is passing, the leaves are turning and we are heading into the darkening days that lead us on to the trailhead of winter.  Over the years I’ve brought forth some of my own stories of hauntings, ghosts and monsters--one can hardly help it when the weather is right and the mood is misted, sullen and shadow-shrouded!  As I said in blogs last year dealing with the work of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, I have always been enamored of horror.

Over the years my own haunted tales came together in narrative orbit around a family I came to call “The Dier.”  Their story was finally brought forth in a novel – Ham-Farir: The Faring of Matthew Thorin Dier (AuthorHouse, 2008); a 'big' story in which I was able to range over three human generations and encompass the experiences of three main groups of characters, each of which was engaged with strange experiences and mysteries surrounding "The Dier," and that eventually came together for a final 'event.'

There are a lot of characters in this story and a whole fictional world in which they live and breathe and have their being-in-becoming.  I love stories about family history, history in general, and especially the interaction of characters with different approaches to life.  The characters in this novel are writers, musicians, gamers (RPG and board game enthusiasts) and historians.  There are Naturalists with a literary approach to life, Witches and Celtic Christians all interacting with one another.  Bringing all of these people together and having them cooperate to tell a big story about experiences they have shared is part of what made the novel interesting for me to write. 

The novel is a series of stories told by those who have undergone an ordeal.  It is not – except in the middle volume – a story told in present time.  It is not an action/gorefest.  It is a reflective set of stories attempting to render out the meaning of strange events.  The present time of the story as told is a year earlier than the telling.

The novel deals with the consequences of extraordinary and extreme experiences; something that I don't find many horror, terror or weird tales doing; which mostly tend to end after the climax of the 'action'--leaving the survivors to deal with what they have experienced; as if there is no more story to be told about them.  But real people have to deal with the consequences of traumatic, destructive and life-changing events.  In Ham-Farir, the characters are attempting to handle loss, tragedy and strangeness by coming to some understanding of the history, fate and nature of the Dier.  They do this by telling their stories to a horror novelist.

The novel – published in 3 volumes – records the storytelling sessions at Whispering Eaves -- the home of the novelist Daniel Westforth Whittier in June and July of 2004.  In Volume I[i] participants tell their stories of what had happened to draw each of the three groups of friends into the sphere of influence of the family known as "the Dier." Volume II[ii] relates what happened at a house in Milvale, PA in 1989 and is called "The Strange Haunting of Mary Igraine Whittier."  It ends with an account of events that took place on or around Deer Hill in the 1990’s that the storytellers link to the haunting in 1989 and also to the fate of the Dier.  In Volume III,[iii] the survivors of their experience in a town called Smithton, PA relate what happened to them leading up to the final extra-ordinary event at an old abandoned farmhouse in October 2003.
The whole novel occurs because of what happened “in consequence of haunted lives,” as Daniel Westforth Whittier put it in his own novel describing the events (The Faring, 2008). As I love telling stories about the Dier and the Whittiers -- the central family in my poetic geography of Ross County, PA -- and as we are in the eaves of the Autumnwood; I am inspired to outline the general 'facts' behind the novel.  I used to tell the stories of the Dier to friends, and tonight this blog is going to substitute for sitting around a fire, a stone circle or an old well or ruined rustic house and telling my tales to friends!  Would you be my audience for a few minutes?  Perhaps I may entice you into reading the novel!

So, let me begin_

Back in the summer of 2004, three groups of friends got together to share their experiences of an ordeal that had changed their lives forever. Their intent was to tell what had happened to them to a horror novelist – Daniel Westforth Whittier[iv] – and see if he could help them make sense of what they had gone through.

Why choose a horror novelist? Because the things they had experienced went well beyond the generally accepted limits of ordinary experience, and took them into a realm where they became more and more unsure of the reality behind their experiences.  "Do we really know what happened to us?" they would ask one another after long evenings of trying to make sense of it!

What they had experienced took place over the summer and into the autumn of 2003, culminating in an extra-ordinary event on 9 October 2003 at an abandoned farmhouse in the woods NE of Tannersville, PA.[v]  The events leading up to that final experience had unfolded in such a way as to divide two of the groups of friends and put them more or less at odds.

The three groups of friends came together at Whispering Eaves; the home of Daniel Westforth Whittier and his family—on Deer Hill, a “prominent hogback” south of Wickersfeld, PA.  The storytelling was arranged by Geoffrey Whittier[vi] as a series of sessions in which different groups of people or individuals would tell parts of the overall story over the course of several days.  It would take weeks to finish the telling!  The participants had been getting together with Geoffrey for months, laying out the ‘plot’ of the story as they understood it, which would take them back to the 1880’s, when the family called “The Dier” (“pronounced just like ‘deer’ but spelled D-I-E-R,” as Charlie MacClanahan was fond of saying) first came to Ross County.

The Dier had dwelt in Ross County for a decade and later came to play a major role in local folklore.  Stories were told especially about Matthew and “Mad Mary,” his wife; any strange event would be attributed to them—even long after they would have certainly been dead.

In the mid 1890's, the Whittiers built a house on Deer Hill, on the very property where the farmhouse in which the Dier had lived had stood.  The house belonging to the Dier had burned to the ground in 1890 and the Whittiers, wanting to move to more modest and rustic housing (they had lived for half a century in a mansion their predecessors had built in the early 19th century), chose Deer Hill as an ‘idyllic’ location where they might re-settle themselves and also “redeem the land” around which so many tragic events seem to have swirled.  The family known as the Dier had been at the center of controversy surrounding a number of murders, thefts and fires which had plagued the area for a decade.

The Whittiers lived on Deer Hill for 50 years, until their own house burned in a fire in October of 1949.  Those who grew up there had all heard stories of the ‘infamous’ Dier and especially of “Matthew and Mad Mary.”  Matthew Dier’s remains had not been found in the burned out house in 1889.  His wife Mary had fled into the woods a couple of years earlier, and gone mad, never being reunited with her family.  No one ever knew what finally happened to her, though for years she was sighted here and there around the Wickersfeld area, “feral in the woods,” as Jonathan Whittier once lamented of her.  She was never captured, and after the fire in 1890; local superstition presumed that Matthew had gone to ‘live’ with his mad wife in the woods.  Hence the stories of “Matthew and Mad Mary.”

All of this was just local folklore and century old local history until the events of 2003, which re-opened the questions “Who were the Dier?” “Where did they come from?” and “What happened to them?”  The last question had kept many people guessing over the course of a century.

The Whittiers returned to Dier Hill in the 1980’s.  At the beginning of their “Reunion,” Geoffrey began collecting stories about life at the first Whittier House from those still surviving who had grown up and dwelt there.  As he did so, he began hearing about ‘the Dier” as well.  He collected all of the family remembrances – excepting the tales of the Dier – into a family history, and also wrote a series of stories centering upon the Thirteen Days of Yule; a calendar for which the Whittiers are famous.  Over the years that followed, he mulled over the stories of the Dier, becoming fascinated with them.  Who were they?  What happened to them?

Then, in 1989, Geoffrey, his cousin Edward and two of their friends from Wickersfeld College got involved in what came to be known as “The Strange Haunting of Mary Igraine Whittier.”  The events of that summer revolved around a couple of trunks that had belonged to the Dier and that had been in the possession of the Whittiers since 1890.  They had survived the conflagration that destroyed the Dier House, and Jonathan Whittier thought that they should be preserved, “in case any member of the family should still be found to exist.”  No Dier ever turned up to claim them.  The trunks passed down in the family until they came into Mary Igraine's keeping.

After the events of October 2003, the groups involved in the ordeal naturally turned to Geoffrey – the official historian/storyteller of the Whittier family – to help them sort out and make sense of what had happened to them.  It was his suggestion that perhaps they should all tell their stories to Daniel Westforth, the horror novelist.

When Daniel was approached about hearing the stories Geoffrey and his friends had to tell, he was intrigued because, growing up at the original Whittier House in the 1940’s before the fire, he'd heard many weird tales about the family known as the Dier.   He also knew that some members of his own family had had strange encounters in the early 20th century somehow connected to the unfortunate family and that a couple – including his cousin Mary Igraine – had long seemed haunted by tales of the Dier.  He also knew that Geoffrey and Edward had had some kind of ‘encounter’ at Mary Igraine’s house in 1989 “involving those darned trunks” and had always wondered what had happened over there in Milvale.

Consequently, in June of 2004 Daniel and his wife Rosalind hosted the storytelling sessions that unfolded and laid bare, once and for all, the history, nature and fate of the Dier.  Want to know more?  This is the story told in my novel, Ham-Farir: The Faring of Matthew Thorin Dier (Authorhouse, 2008).

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