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The Vermont Ghost Experience
A book of true Vermont ghost stories which I illustrated for Joseph A Citro. Joe and I began working on this book in 2013, and published it in 2016. You may buy a copy for $15 at
Joe and I at our book signing at the Eloquent Page in St.Albans 10/30/16
| A review of our book
that appeared in the 10/26/16 edition of Seven Days
Joseph A. Citro Gets Real With New Book on Vermont Ghosts
Joseph A. Citro has written reams on paranormal phenomena in the Green Mountains — some 11 nonfiction books on that subject and related terrain. As befits Vermont's "Ghost-master General," his new book, The Vermont Ghost Experience, is chock-full of spine-tingling spook stories, ranging from a classic haunted house tale in Richford to a Lovecraftian monster mystery in Irasburg. But amid these ghastly tales, one experience in particular stands out: Citro's own.
In "Introduction: The Night Visitor," the lead-in to the book's second act, Citro recalls a personal brush with a spectral phenomenon. It's a ghost story of sorts, but not in the traditional sense. That's because the ghost in question is a living person: Citro's then-girlfriend, Sheila.
We won't spoil the tale — it's pretty creepy. But Citro's late-night encounter highlights one hallmark of great ghost stories: They make it hard to tell what is real or imagined, whether an apparition is indeed a visitor from another plane or the product of an unquiet mind. Think of Jack Torrance, the homicidal hotel caretaker in Stephen King's The Shining. Are malevolent spirits from the Overlook Hotel's past driving Torrance to "redrum," or does he just have a seriously bad case of cabin fever? It's never quite clear. Citro's story of Sheila draws a similarly shadowy line between the real and the surreal, providing a chilling and thought-provoking context for the true-life tales that surround it.
"A great ghost story can be fiction — and there are a lot of terrific ones," says Citro in a recent interview with Seven Days. But, he stresses, great ghost stories can also be true — or at least true to our subjective experience.
In this book, and with this particular case, I just wanted to use my own experience to remind readers that we can be fooled," he continues. "The same five senses we use to fillet fact from fantasy can also conspire to convince us there is a sixth. I'm saying, 'Look! It happened to me!'"
"The Night Visitor" is not the first personal experience about which Citro has written in his books. In the introduction to his 2012 book Vermont's Haunts: Tall Tales & True From the Green Mountain State, he related what he describes as "an inexplicable adventure with an empty glass that leaves even my scientist friends baffled."
But that's about the extent of his encounters with the supernatural. By and large, Citro's charge is telling the tall tales of others. "I have had a few unusual experiences, but none unambiguously with 'spirits,'" he says. "My purpose in life seems to be more to collect the stories than to experience them. I suppose that gives me a bit of reportorial distance."
Citro prides himself on conducting a thorough vetting process grounded in painstaking research and interviews. One example from the new book is "St. Albans," presented in a graphic novel format by local cartoonist Robert Waldo Brunelle Jr. Brunelle, whose comic strip "Mr. Brunelle Explains It All" appears weekly in Seven Days, drew the illustrations that pepper the book.
The tale is based on a 1998 interview with a St. Albans man named Raymond Shepard, then 93 years old. Shepard recounted a ghoulish encounter that he and his brother experienced at their home in 1915, involving a dead child whose spirit was not exactly at rest. It's a pitch-perfect gothic ghost story, made all the more creepy by the reputability of its source.
"I'd swear there is simply no way [Shepard] was insincere about what happened to him," Citro attests. The chapter closes with factual evidence that emerged many years later and helps cement the old man's veracity. But does that mean it's true? Did the old man really see a ghost?
Citro, both by nature and occupational requirement, is a skeptic. When asked if he believes in ghosts, the "Bard of the Bizarre" hedges.
"Well, I have collected a lot of evidence, but I am still sitting on the fence," he says. "Which, I must admit, can get a little uncomfortable after a while."
Though perhaps not as uncomfortable as the delightfully eerie tales he tells.
An article about our book in the Nov. 6th edition of the Valley News newspaper.
Nov. 6th, 2016
Windsor Author Joseph Citro is Still Writing, Telling Weird Tales
While waiting to meet Joseph Citro earlier this week, I couldn’t help wondering whether the prolific author and curator of weird stories and ghostly myths from the history of Vermont would drive up to the Windsor Diner in … oh, maybe a big, old Cadillac hearse. Tinted windshield. Drapes in the side and back windows, open just wide enough to reveal a casket.
Alas, the Rutland, Vt.-born, Chester, Vt.-raised Citro soon pulled to the curb in a gun-metal gray sedan of Asian manufacture, the morning after he had spun a parade of tall tales, and solicited spooky stories from his audience, with the diner lights lowered for his appearance benefiting the Windsor Public Library.
And, no, darn it, the 68-year-old, who moved to Windsor in 2014, wasn’t wearing a Transylvanian tuxedo. Just a ball cap from the Springfield (Mass.) Armory over his snow-white mane and beard, and standard-issue flannel shirt and jeans.
Guess I should have spoken first with Robert Waldo Brunelle Jr., the Rutland-born painter and cartoonist with whom Citro collaborated on a new book, The Vermont Ghost Experience.
“For him it’s not about the spookiness,” Brunelle said during a telephone interview on Thursday, from his home in Jericho, Vt. “He’s a folklorist, first and foremost. It’s the stories that fascinate him.”
Weird stories, true and apocryphal, have fascinated Citro since his father first started telling him variations on central-Vermont tales — ranging from Phineas Gage, the railroad construction foreman who survived an accident that drove a steel rod through his skull and brain — and a panoply of haunted houses to deer stumbling drunk around an orchard after eating fermented fallen apples.
And since the mid-1980s, Citro has made a career of collecting and sharing the stories in books, at readings and presentations — especially around Halloween — and on public radio, to listeners ranging from early-teen goths to veteran members of AARP.
“During the reading last night, I was thinking, ‘Why are people bothering to come and hear me?’ ” Citro said over breakfast on Tuesday. “We’re bombarded with entertainment choices now. We don’t have to go anywhere. ... People could stay home and watch The Walking Dead. Yet, I still get good audiences.”
The late anthropologists Margaret Mead and Joseph Campbell would appreciate one of his theories explaining the phenomenon.
“Before computers and TV, people told stories around campfires,” Citro said. “It began in prehistoric times and continued up to Boy Scout camps: first the cave, then the tent.
“At some of the gatherings where I read or tell stories, people will start telling stories of their own, from their towns. When that happens, it’s great. Stories help create a sense of community. They know the story. It’s their story.
“I think the work I’ve done has been an example of community building through myth and stories.”
That ethic began percolating in earnest for Citro in middle school, when he fell under the spell of horror writers and fellow New Englanders H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, and found his way to Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“I remember the immediacy each tale took on when I realized it could be happening right here in Vermont,” Citro wrote in the author’s note to his 1991 novel Lake Monsters, set in Vermont’s Champlain Islands. “Right in the woods behind my house.”
For a calling he couldn’t foresee at the time, Citro figures, it probably helped that his imagination was conjuring spectral figures out of those woods even before he started school.
“I always had the feeling that someone was watching me,” he recalled. “They were walking by my windows. Sometimes, there were people looking in on me. On reflection, I think they were dreams that imprinted (subconsciously). … I think my fear of being watched had as much to do with my early Roman Catholic indoctrination as anything else.”
That wouldn’t surprise novelist and former Dartmouth College writing professor Ernest Hebert, who grew up Catholic in Keene, N.H., in the 1940s and 1950s and whose fictional characters often wrestle with that religious background.
“You’re supposed to have a guardian angel that’s making sure you don’t commit” certain sins, Hebert said this week.
As a sophomore well into his 20s at Keene State College, Hebert felt a kinship and a responsibility to watch out for Citro after they met during freshman orientation.
“He was like a kid brother to me,” Hebert said. “He’s very thoughtful in a gentle kind of way. He can say controversial things, but you never see a guy who’s got a chip on his shoulder.”
Hebert also saw in Citro an aspiring filmmaker.
“He had a primitive Super-8 camera, making horror-type movies,” Hebert recalled. “That theme was in him really early.”
In print, Citro started playing with the theme in the early 1980s, in preliminary drafts of Lake Monsters, which at that point was going by the title Dark Twilight. After Hebert, by then an established novelist with his acclaimed Dogs of March, read it, he asked his agent to shop it around to publishers. Half a dozen rejections ensued, and Citro moved on to his next novel, Shadow Child, about a man who returns to his childhood home in Vermont after the deaths of his wife and his parents, and encounters a parade of odd occurrences. It came out in 1987, and fulfilled, up to a point, an ambition for Citro.
“The big thing at first was to write and publish a book,” Citro recalled. “I don’t think I was thinking in terms of a career as a writer. I just wanted to get a book out there.
“If I could get one book published, I’d be happy.”
Hebert envied the ensuing output.
“What I admired was that he seemed to write more easily than the rest of us,” Hebert said. “I’d write a lot of drafts, try this, try that. As I was reading (Lake Monsters), I was thinking, ‘This guy’s a real writer. He’s the real thing.’ ”
While that first book led to five more novels, Citro found that the folklore he was collecting and documenting “sold better, though I’m not absolutely convinced it’s non-fiction.” It also led, in the early 1990s, to a regular gig telling odd stories on Vermont Public Radio.
After Deus X, a 1994 novel that blends government conspiracies, possession by demons, UFOs and sightings of the Virgin Mary, Citro deployed his research — from interviews of old-timers to newspaper clippings about odd events — into a line of books that began with 1994’s Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls and Unsolved Mysteries and ran through 2009’s Vermont Monster Guide.
The Vermont Ghost Experience, in turn, grew out of several years of discussions with Brunelle about stories Citro had spun on the radio as well as some he had yet to share, and about how to balance the illustrations, including one set in graphic-novel style, with the stories.
There were plenty of tales from which to choose.
“When I started with all of this, I thought I’d quickly run out of stories,” Citro said. “But every time I look in the barrel and expect to see the bottom, it starts filling up again.”
How full became apparent when Citro moved to Windsor from Burlington. With recordings and paper files from decades of notes, newspaper clippings and interviews with survivors of and descendants of subjects of close encounters, much of it in storage, Citro is still trying to figure out how much to keep for future books and what to pass along.
“The Vermont Folk Life Center has shown some interest in the material,” Citro said. “It makes sense, but I also have a reluctance to give up custody.
“There’s this sense of surrender.”
In the meantime, Citro isn’t surrendering the novelty of his calling.
“You try to find a way to tell a story so that you can leave the wonder intact, and still get to the real-world truth of it,” Citro said. “How do you leave the myth intact?”
Copies of Joseph Citro and Robert Waldo Brunelle Jr.’s new collection of stories, The Vermont Ghost Experience, are available in the Upper Valley at Arabella Gallery in Windsor. To order copies directly from the printer, visit bit.ly/2eWbxxX. To learn more about Citro’s work, visit his Facebook page. For more information about the art of Robert Brunelle, visit mrbrunelle.com.
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 603-727-3304.