THANKSREADING 2019: Giving Thanks for the Bard of the Bizarre

Thanksgiving is next Thursday. Once again, here on the blog I’ll spend the week leading up to the holiday giving thanks for the written word.

Last year I focused on books I am grateful for. (You can find those here.) This year, I’m switching it up a bit and saying thanks to authors whose works have influenced me over the years.

The week begins with a Vermont author who continually inspires me: Joseph A. Citro.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools humans possess. Maybe the most powerful of all. As a writer and reader, I’m biased, but it’s still true. 

Joseph A. Citro speaks at the Bent Northrop Library in Fairfield, VT, in early Nov. 2019.

We tell stories in many forms for myriad reasons. To preserve history. To maintain traditions. To incite an emotional response. And on and on. Among the various approaches to storytelling, I have always been fascinated by legends and folklore. Especially legends and folklore that relate to the the weird, the unexplained, and the highly strange.

Allegedly true tales of the paranormal have been with us since the earliest campfire storytelling sessions. Boil them down to their collective essence, and they’re all about the same thing: something is out there. We’re telling these stories because we haven’t answered every question about our world. Paranormal legends and folklore are our way of relating to one another via the common ground of the unknown.

Citro is a master of telling such stories. In collections such as Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors, Damned Yankees: Cursed in New England, and The Vermont Monster Guide, as well as several others, he has gathered together bizarre tales from around New England. Some stories were already well-known, and some he likely saved from the brink of cultural extinction.

If you go to a touristy sort of shop these days, you’ll more than likely find a few book shelves dedicated to New England ghost stories, Bigfoot encounters, and UFO sightings. Citro’s books will be there, and so will compilations from other authors. Take a minute and flip through them. It won’t take long before you discover that quite a few of those other books either credit Citro as a source, or they contain obviously rewritten versions of stories Citro previously wrote about. 

He’s the modern wellspring from which this publishing niche springs. And not without good reason. His deep-dive research, writing style, and voice create collections that are not just readable, but re-readable. And re-re-readable.

There’s a reason Citro is known as The Bard of the Bizarre. When it comes to tales of the paranormal in the northeast corner of the United States, the dude is Shakespeare.

But his work isn’t confined to collections of local legends and folklore. Citro also wrote five novels back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Shadow Child, Guardian Angels, The Unseen, Lake Monsters, and Deus-X are fantastic works of fiction that are built around the legends and folklore of New England. Tales of Champ, Bigfoot, and forest folk are merely the jumping off points for modern stories of people dealing with daily issues we all face to some degree.

Which brings me back to my earlier point about paranormal legends and folklore. There’s important stuff being shared in these stories. More being communicated than “I saw a ghost in the upstairs hallway” or “Those strange lights we saw in the sky last night were from a UFO.” The human mind craves patterns and looks for them to make sense of the world. The unknown isn’t something we’re comfortable with. So we share stories of what we think we see. Then the pattern is complete, and there’s no unknown. Until the next thing comes along.

Unfortunately, we muck it all up by introducing the binary idea of “I believe in …” or “I don’t believe in …” Then we gather into our respective tribes and diminish the other. 

I had the privilege of seeing Citro speak at the Bent Northrop Library in Fairfield, VT, three weeks ago. He shared some of his favorite tales and took questions from the audience. He also spoke to this idea of belief or lack thereof. It’s a topic he addresses in his book, The Vermont Ghost Experience, and he does so eloquently. I won’t spoil it here. If you want to find out where he stands on all this, buy the book or go see him speak. 

Over the years, I’ve talked with Citro, interviewing him for newspaper stuff, consulting with him about a too-good-to-be-authentic legend, and seeking thoughts about an unusual experience I had this past summer. He is always welcoming, thoughtful, and encouraging. In short, he’s a hell of a role model.

I’m thankful for Joseph A. Citro, and once you check out his work, you will be, too.

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