Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Strangely Enough...Metaweirdness



Earlier I mentioned my fascination with all things Fortean, strange, and weird, though I hasten to add I swallow none of this stuff without a side order of skepticism--Sturgeon's Law still applies and one must, therefore, be careful with what one believes. Still, it's fun to think there might be sea serpents, undiscovered animals, ghostly doings, gifts of prophecy, Mothmen, UFOs, mysterious fires and lights, lost treasures, and so forth.

Blame it on my babysitter.

Poor thing, for a couple of years she got saddled with a yakky child just about every other Saturday night because, well, I loved an audience--there were no kids my age in my neighborhood and, let's be honest, I was too damned weird for most of the kids at school. Even my parents had limited tolerance for my Aspergerian perseverations, and so, basically, I had no one with which to share the current week's obsession...except for unsuspecting relatives and hapless babysitters.

But Lisa A. was one smart cookie and quickly figured out that giving me something interesting to read would shut me up for the entire evening, thus allowing her to do homework, read teen magazines, chat with her boyfriend by phone, or whatever it was teenage babysitters did for amusement in the 'Sixties. On one particular occasion she tossed me a copy of the Scholastic Book Services (and there's a piece of nostalgia for the Baby Boomers--remember getting those flimsy little paperback catalogs in school once a month?) hottest offering, Strangely Enough! by C. B. Colby--an anthology of weird-but-supposedly-true tales.

She should have just given me crack--crack is less addictive.

The Money Pit at Oak Island, ghostly apparitions, haunted sentry boxes, ghost ships, flying saucers, mysterious TV signals, the strange behavior of felines (is your snoozing puddy actually King of the Cats?)--oh, it was great stuff! Over the next few years I wound up amassing a HUGE collection of similarly-themed paperbacks, discarded issues of Fate magazine, and UFO books, which was easy enough to do since this stuff was all the rage way back then.*

But that's not the story I'm here to tell.

Are you familiar with Michael Chabon? Author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys, and, most recently, The Yiddish Policemen's Union? Well, a few years ago Chabon gave a lecture in which he revealed that not only had he read Strangely Enough as a child, but its author, C. B. Colby, lived at the end of the same street he did and when movers were emptying Colby's house years later Chabon saw them carry out what looked suspiciously like... a golem (be sure to read "Where Things Get Weird" later, but not right this minute).

Spooky, ain't it? Oh, wait; there's more. Chabon went on to say that C. B. Colby was actually a Holocaust survivor named Joseph Adler who wrote of his experiences in a memoir, The Book of Hell.

Except Adler wasn't a Holocaust survivor at all; he was a former Nazi named Viktor Fischer.

Let that bit of weirdness sink in for a minute.

Now, let's get to the real weirdness-- there was a C. B. Colby, he did write a slew of informative books for grade-school kids including Strangely Enough, but he was not an ex-Nazi nor was he a Holocaust survivor--Michael Chabon made it up.

(see "Fiction, Hoax or Neither? A Literary Dust-Up" and "Revenge of the Regressive Avant-Garde.")

Certain literary types went absolutely ape-shit, as certain literary types are apt to do (witness the furor over James Frey's otherwise inconsequential piece o' fluff A Million Little Pieces), griping (with, maybe, some, but only some, justification) that Chabon had no right to appropriate the "Jewish Experience" for his own, personal aggrandizement, nor should he have presented fiction as fact without a suitable warning label.

(see "Anatomy of A Hoax: An Interview With Paul Maliszewski," the man who broke the story)

Oh, pish-posh. They're just pissed because they got taken in by a storyteller. Chabon tells stories. We all tell stories and we all embellish them to greater or lesser degrees so as to entertain out audience. That's what storytellers do! Debate the ethics all you want, but I've never turned to the fictionistas when I'm looking for hard-core facts; I automatically assume a significantly high Embellishment Factor. Then again, my personality is such that I enjoy sifting signal from noise.

The brilliance of Michael Chabon is not only did he present a perfectly plausible weird story in his lectures (and let's be honest here, careful listeners received ample warning that what was to follow was not strictly true), he generated an entire meta-story as well.

Bottom line? Truth is stranger than fiction.

Strangely enough.


* The few friends I did have shared my interests and Saturdays often found us haunting dingy thrift stores in dodgy parts of town (especially the Cracker Barrel and the Nine-To-Nine Newstand in Basic City), scrounging for whatever coffee-stained, water-warped, mildew-scented treasures by Brad Steiger, Hans Holzer, and Frank Edwards we could get out grubby hands upon--rarely could we afford new copies, priced as they were at 75 cents, 95 cents, and, occasionally, an astounding $1.25.

11 comments:

Cathy VanPatten said...

I had that book too!! I used to scare myself reading that stuff--all of which I got through Scholastic Book Services. The human combustion stories were always good for several days of the willies. So was one particularly creepy tale of people disappearing in a farm field where others could hear them calling for help for days and days afterwards. Whooooo.

What a great Chabon story!

By the way, I have to take issue with the Wikipedia article on Basic City--I would hardly call it a "lost town." It was absorbed by Waynesboro, but just about everyone who lives in the Big W still calls that part of town "Basic," don't they? At least they did 'way back when.

An aside about Basic. When I was little, my dad used to take my brother and I over to Zeldon's Store over in Basic. I'm not sure what my dad's connection with him was, but they were great friends, and we would often be invited up to the family's apartment above the store. I don't recall going there, though, after I was in first or second grade.

Then years later, I found out (it literally took YEARS! I was in high school, I think) that Zeldon's Store was the place kids made fun of and called "Dirty Sam's," Sam being Mr. Zeldon. And the sad, rather threadbare and wan girl that kids teased and called "Rosebud" was Mr. Zeldon's daughter. Weird slice of life...

Cathy VanPatten said...

Sorry--that should have read "used to take my brother and me..."

G. W. Ferguson said...

Yeah, I can't tell you the number of nights I slept with the covers over my head just in case! Didn't stop me from reading 'em.

That "lost town" designation annoyed me a little as well, but whaddaya gonna do? As far as I'm concerned, "Basic" remains a proper geographical location.

Your father and Mr. Zeldon?--there's got to be an interesting story there!

My mother either taught the daughter or had her in homeroom; either way, Mom was heartbroken at the way other kids treated her.

And don't forget--Mike Zeldon was in chorus with us during 7th-9th grade (he often sat next to Robert Wagner and they both sat behind me in that wretched tenor/bass section). Mike was actually pretty cool, not the brightest bulb in the box, but a nice guy. I lost track of him when we went to high school and I often wonder what became of him (but not Robert Wagner, particularly).

Off-topic--do you remember a John McCrary (sp?) who went to Jackson-Wilson with us? His father ran a rather run-down-looking photography studio behind the Colonial grocery store across from Newberry's. For some reason I was thinking about him the other day and remembering he was an incredible artist at the time. No Boyd Hetrick, but still...what happened to him?

Cathy VanPatten said...

You know, there are so many things I would love to ask my dad about his life, now that he's no longer around to offer any answers. A hard lesson to learn, yep. Maybe my mom knows--I think it may have had something to do with a favor Mr. Zeldon did for my folks back when they first moved to W'boro. The first house they lived in was almost in Basic (or maybe actually IN it...)--it was over by Freeds (so you probably know if it was in Basic or not). I'll try to remember to ask her the next time I talk to her.

And yes! I remember Mike, vaguely. And Robert Wagner. For some reason, he (Robert) landed in my 12th-grade Government class and was completely overwhelmed by the requirements. We were really snarky to him, but now I think back on it and think he was just a kind of sad case--a dumb and lurch-like hulk of a guy.

I'm trying to place John McCrary--I kind of remember the photo studio, but not the kid.

Cathy VanPatten said...

Me again.

I found out about the Zeldon connection. Apparently the Zeldon family was renting the house my family bought back in '57 (the house where my mom still lives), and that's how my dad and Mr. Zeldon became friends. I think my parents allowed them to remain in the house for a while before we moved in--gave them enough time to ready the apartment above the store.

Not a very intriguing story, but oh well! Now we know!

John Mica said...

I was suddenly thinking the other day about an old Kate Collins Junior High School classmate in Waynesboro, Virginia, named Boyd Hetrick, who was all the wow in 1970 for his wonderful artistic ability. I tried to search for him on Google, sure that he would be at least semi-famous by now, but the only reference I came up with is from this blog, which on 2Jan08 said: "For some reason I was thinking about him the other day & remembering he was an incredible artist at the time. No Boyd Hetrick, but still...what happened to him?"
Can you please assist me to get some samples of Boyd's beautiful artwork, or at least some kind of clue as to how to track him down? Thank you very much! You can contact me at johnmica78 (at) yahoo.

planettom said...

I was fascinated with that Scholastic book STRANGELY ENOUGH! as well. It was in the 1970s, and I was reading my older brother's hand-me-down copy.

But, even back then, I realized, since it was labeled ABRIDGED, that there was a larger version of STRANGELY ENOUGH! out there. I think it was originally published in the late 1940s or 1950s.

Probably without justification, I now perceive the original book as something like the mythical S. Morgenstern version of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, or one of those books of forgotten lore mentioned in Lovecraft stories.

G. W. Ferguson said...

@ planettom:

Hey, thanks for reading!

Having spent way too much time searching for the unabridged version of Strangely Enough, I'm tempted to agree with you--we're deep into the Land of Apocrypha. Still, whenever I'm in a used bookstore I look around for a copy... just in case.

-Alan D Hopewell said...

The unabridged (hardcover)version of STRANGELY ENOUGH! does exist; it's from 1959, and I first ran across it in 5th grade, at Charleston Elementary School, in Lorain, Ohio, in 1966-it was in the school library. Like you, I've owned several copies of the abridged version ("Haunted Schoolhouse" and "The Whistle" being the creepiest stories, IMHO)and had searched for another copy of the original version. I finally found one in the Children's Section at the Main Branch of the Cleveland Public Library, a few years ago; it may still be there.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between telling a story and lying about an actual person. As you have correctly pointed out, C. B. Colby was a real person who was not only NOT a Nazi--he was involved in helping the FBI hunt nazis in the NYC area during the 1940s.

It was a crime for Chabon to use Colby's name, and he is lucky that Colby was already dead. If he wanted to tell a story, he should have made up a name, not that of a real person, whose family and friends could be hurt by the allegations. Chabon should be ashamed of himself.

J Michael Waite said...

Hey G.W.--I was only two streets over from your house. Sorry we didn't knock noggins sooner in life. Wonder if you know Mark Cline (who lived a few houses down from me on Valley Rd). His Enchanted Castle Studio in Lexington is a marvel. His haunted house on Haloween is a blast. For creepy tales--how about Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales. Makes Braveheart seem tame. All of this was for children? Yikes! Shocked that I am no more strange than I am. Good finding you in the electron maelstrom--and quite by accident. Check out the Steampunk phenomenon. I think you might find it to your liking. Slainte!