Patchworks and Palimpsests: Stories Older Than Bones

Recently I was wandering down a rabbit hole of podcasts and folklore, and I got thinking…Mythically speaking, New England is really fucking *weird*.

What do I mean by this?

So, most places have a pretty distinctive story type associated with them that is best described as a patchwork quilt, various pieces  sewn together to form a coherent theme.  (For Reasons, mostly that I could write entire libraries on the subject, and for the sake of brevity am going to narrow the field, I’m going to stick with a superficial overview of just the US for now.)  For example, if you’re talking about the New Orleans region, the story fabric is full of ghosts and Voodoo and cypress swamps and is very much this rich tapestry woven of the history of the various cultures who have lived there.  Even if you don’t know that the story is set there, the elements and images are so strongly tied to it, that you know This Is A Story Of New Orleans And Its Environs.  The South is riddled with Civil War ghosts and haunted plantations and again, it’s all tied to the history of it’s peoples, to form a recognizable fabric.  Pacific Northwest, cryptids, the Midwest, LOTS of road ghosts, etc.

Appalachia, though, things start getting – interesting – which I’ll come back to in a minute.

New England is more like a collection of badly scraped palimpsests, held together with a bit of rodent-chewed twine, randomly fished out of a harbor or found in an abandoned cabin out in the woods, which somehow still manage to be recognizably New England Stories.  It shouldn’t work.  There shouldn’t be anything to tie them together, nor link them so notably to this specific region, yet here we are.

(If you’re unfamiliar with what a palimpsest is, it’s a manuscript page which the text has been scraped or washed off of so that it can be reused for a new document.  One of the reasons we have fewer medieval writings remaining than we should is because this was done fairly regularly, so a lot of things were lost to reuse the parchment or vellum, which were costly and difficult to produce.  It’s not uncommon to still be able to see the residual ink or paint from the previous documents underneath the newer writing.)

We’ve got our share of ghost stories, sure.  Mostly Revolutionary/Colonial Era, but there’s also pirates and haunted mills and rather more witches than were ever actually hung in Salem or anywhere else in the region.  We’ve got a surprising number of cryptids, but they aren’t well known, even in the places they’re from, aside from one lake monster up in Vermont.  We don’t really have a solid folklore Theme like other places with the amount of history we have.  Not like other places have.

Except we do.  What we have is the Land Itself and it is Alive and Haunted As Fucking Balls.

This is where I swing back to Appalachia.

See, Appalachia has a LOT of ghosts.  On the surface, they’re much like the ghosts elsewhere, tied to the history of immigration, racism, classism, and violences done there, but when you start to look into it, there’s a lot of those ghost stories that start with something else, and a lot of other stories that don’t have ghosts but they do have Other Things.

They start with the mountains and the land itself.  They start with stories of Things That Are Older Than Humanity, things that are darker and hungrier and wilder that don’t stay quiet and still.  Don’t go out at night, close the curtains and don’t look out the windows after dark, take care in the woods, be courteous to the stranger you meet out by the old abandoned mine or down the holler (the one whose voice doesn’t sound Quite Right, but it wouldn’t be polite to ask about), and no, that’s probably not really a deer, so best stay clear of it….

Interestingly, this is more or less the same thing that happens with New England.  The specifics change, because the histories are different, but the heart of it is the same. It all goes back to the land itself, and the land in these places is a little bit different than it is elsewhere.

There are two things that people often either forget or aren’t aware of.  One, that the Appalachian Mountains start down South, but they also run solidly through New England and up past Nova Scotia.  Two, that those mountains are far older than people think.  It’s easy to miss.  They’re small, as mountains go, worn smooth, and not particularly Exciting to look at.  Not like, say, the majestic cragginess that is the Rockies.  They’re..comfortable looking.

The Rocky Mountain range is, geologically speaking, pretty young.  It’s only between roughly 55-80 million years old; practically a toddler of a range.

The Appalachians, though, are approximately 480 million years old.  They once towered over the heart of Pangea itself, having been born along with it.  To quote a meme going around the internet, they are older than bones.  Those soft, rounded mountains are, very literally, part of a completely different land, relics of a place that ceased to exist before the lands we know of came to be.

Of course the land here is different. The land is older and wilder and hungrier.  This is why Appalachia tells the stories it does. This is what King knows about Maine, and Lovecraft knew about Massachusetts and New Hampshire and why their stories are the way they are, and why this is what people remember about us.

Our tales aren’t about the ghosts of teenage girls killed in car crashes trying to find their way home, or soldiers reenacting battles they died in, because we live in a place where we walk with ancient things from other lands, who never left, and who still watch us from the hollers and hills and the shores, and are older than bones and older than sin, and they Remember that we humans are the newcomers here.  Our mythological patterns reflect that we can still see the lines of them on the parchment clear as day, and know that if we aren’t careful, we, too, will be pulled deeper into the ink.

I don’t think they were necessarily the first, either.

It’s just my observation, though.  I could be wrong.  But I know what I’ve seen when I travel, and the things that I’ve seen in the place that I call home, and I don’t think I entirely am.

(Originally posted on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter.)

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