Monday, November 9, 2009


A treasured memory I have is of a blissful day spent in Charleston, SC, just wandering the streets of the old town, poking here and there. I took a ghost tour in the evening that was entertaining, with some fun old stories told by a local folklorist. (As it turns out, there's about a half-dozen different kinds of ghost tours in Charleston, making for quite a vacation if one is in the mood.) So when I stumbled on a very old copy of John Bennett's THE DOCTOR TO THE DEAD at the local library, I pounced on it.

Such a great subtitle: "Grotesque Legends & Folk Tales of Old Charleston." And it certainly delivers.

The title story is the longest, the tale of a man with the unlikely name of "Hein Ryngo" who becomes a doctor obsessed with death, to the point of falling in love with a ghost, and doing unspeakable acts in his attempts to bring her back. It's all very Southern-Gothick, and almost seems like something out of Hoffmann or Erckmann-Chatrian. The book's only illustration is a depiction of the doctor's narrow house, that certainly looks intriguing and Gothick...

Another intriguing story is "The Death of the Wandering Jew," that holds that the legendary character is buried in a Charleston cemetery after achieving forgiveness. There's also tales of deals with the devil, like "Madame Margot," in which a mixed-race mother makes a deal for her daughter to be white (and have better chances in life), and "The Black Constable," where a reckless lawman pays the price for his arrogance. And three "Tales from the Trapman Street Hospital" that tell of restless spirits, thirsting for water or simply going through the motions of life.

The rest of the book is tales told to the author by various African Americans of Charleston. Bennett is never condescending or patronizing of African American people or their culture; he allows them their dignity and from what I can tell, he was very open-minded and forward-thinking for his time. (I caught a bit of gossip that although he collected his stories in the 1920s, this book was never published until the 40s because so few people were interested in reading about the tales of African Americans, due to sheer racism.) The tales range from fairy tales (like "All God's Chillen Has Wings") or humorous morality stories ("The Young Wife Whose Vine Meloned Beyond the Fence") or simple ghost stories ("When the Dead Sang in Their Graves"). There's stories of "Rolling Rio," a heroically strong fisherman, that make me think of tales I've read of "Lickin'" Bill Bradshaw, a sort of folk hero of the Chesapeake, and I wonder if these tales of tall strong fishermen are just part and parcel of the areas where that's how folks made their living.

"The Apothecary and the Mermaid" has vague echoes of Lovecraft, or even Fitz-James O'Brien, maybe. And I've read "The Man Who Wouldn't Believe He Was Dead" before, adapted as a children's story, but it's a wry, humorous gem of a contrary man who dies, and won't be convinced that he's dead.

The last three stories are told entirely in Gullah dialect. Some people don't have a problem, but I can't stand dialect stories, even Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet." Emily Bronte pushes me a bit with her dialect passages in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I tried, I really did, but they're too much for me.

THE DOCTOR TO THE DEAD has been reprinted and is available on Amazon, so if you're a fan of folklore, or fond of Charleston, or southern culture, go pick one up. This is a delightful gem, unjustly forgotten.

1 comment:

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