Season of Mists and Hauntings

When the days are getting chilly and the nights long, I start turning to ghost stories. The time has to be right: it must be dark outside, and fairly late, and I in bed, with one bedside light. And then, in the quiet, I open an M. R. James volume, or Le Fanu, or Blackwood…

The earliest story I can remember being told as a young child was a ghost story. My father would sit down on the bed and I’d request the story by name: “Tell me ‘Betsy Murphy’!” My father told it in first person, as something that had happened to him, and as I remember it went like this:

“Well, I had to walk home in the dark one night, and as I was coming across a field I came to a fence and there were some turkeys sitting on top of the fence. They were so tame that none of them flew away when I came up; they just sat there and looked at me. And I thought one of them would make a good dinner and I took the largest one and tucked it under my arm and went on toward home. And just as I was getting close to the house, that turkey looked up at me and said, ‘You’ve carried old Betsy far enough, haven’t you?'”

Usually, that was the end, although sometimes my father added that he dropped the turkey and ran. But he loved to deliver that final question with menace, although there was always a hint of a smile, too, and he plainly thought that was the proper conclusion.

The story fascinated me, I guess, because I was never quite sure of my own attitude toward it. Betsy Murphy was not a cheery Disney-style talking animal; she made me uneasy, and yet she hadn’t done anything terrible, exactly — she had just talked. Every time I heard the story, I considered again the scene: the dark, lonely field and the preternaturally tame bird sitting on the fence, looking back at my father.

From my adult standpoint now, the story seems to be about witchcraft, and I would guess the story is very old, certainly not original to my father. It seems allied to those European tales of witches who could transform themselves into animal shapes to work harm on their neighbors or consort with other demonic beings.

“Betsy Murphy” still has that uneasy mix of understated fear and humor that I found in it as a child, when it gave me chills but not nightmares. Sometimes I laughed at the end; sometimes not. For a story that took only a minute or two to tell, it nevertheless had an element of ambiguity that made it more than a tale quickly told and forgotten.

I’ll be revisiting some favorite ghost stories and looking for some new ones during October, to keep me entertained in the late hour before sleep.

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