Kage Baker was perpetually interested in a number of paranormal phenomena. They weren’t usually topics she researched for stories – she liked to deal with more firmly founded ideas for story sources – but some of the fuzzier, flakier and more fantastical pseudo-scientific areas intrigued her.
(Not ghosts. Ghosts are another thing entirely in our family. And that is a subject for another time, anyway.)
Cryptobiology was a favourite, because it had so frequently turned out to be about honest-to-gosh real animals. Kage was not as fascinated as I was by the tendency of human beings to eat cryptic animals, though; she was more in the horrified camp on that one. But she really got a kick out of following things like the endless search for Bigfoot all over America. She felt it was clearly a status object of mystery: damned near every state has found some reason to claim that a huge, mysterious, smelly quasi-hominid lives in its environs.
In the (flat and largely unforested) Midwest, he’s mutated into Grassman – he lives on the prairie and in grain fields, and builds nests and lean-tos of the omnipresent grass. New York reports odd figures in Central Park, but also borrows from the New Jerseys Pine Barrens for Jersey Devils and ape men. And Florida, evidently cursed with an embarrassment of riches, boasts Skunk Apes, werewolves and Reptile Men; not to mention whatever the endemic Homo sapiens get up to … cannibalism crops up in Florida at pretty regular intervals.
I was rarely interested in Kage’s research into this risible territory – because, frankly, a lot of it scared me silly. I don’t believe in shadow people, Bigfoot, or aliens of any colour; at least, I don’t believe I’m in danger of encountering any of them, on the extremely off-chance they exist. But hearing about them gives me the creeps. I revert to a completely un-judgemental childish state, operating on nerves and adrenaline; my eyelids glue themselves to my eyebrows and I leap convulsively into the air at every slight sound.
“If we ever see anything on the road,” I used to tell her gloomily, “I’ll be found dead of fear at the wheel. And I’ll have wet my pants first, too.”
“Don’t worry,” Kage assured me. “I’ll spill my Coke on you so no one will know.”
Which was weirdly comforting. But I still objected strenuously to discussing the various apparitions that interested her – I either went into a panic on the road (and we drove on back roads in the dark a lot – or I ended up sitting with the light on all night with a book on something absolutely canny. Like geology. The History of Granite never scared anybody.
But Kage only got more and more interested as she got older. She also got more and more skeptical, but I guess the amusement factor filled in where her disbelief scoured out what little gullibility she harboured. She found a weekly radio program run by and for ‘Squatchers (who are people who hunt sasquatches) and tuned in avidly in the last two years of her life.
“There’s a real phenomenon here,” she decided. “I think it’s a mental one, like mass hysteria or ergot poisoning: but it’s real. Flying saucers, lizard people, Bigfeet – the Hollow Hills, for pity’s sake! Why do these people all want so badly to believe these things?”
That was what really fascinated her. She herself believed in the popular myths so little that she made her own “aliens” a forgotten branch of humanity. But the urge to believe, the naked longing and determination of so many people to find the unseely in their own backyards moved Kage strongly. They all wanted so much to believe – why?
She was approaching a theory that it was the lack of spirituality in Western culture at the base of that hunger. Not just religious leanings – those don’t really seem to have slacked off even in these modern times. But most Americans, even though they belong to churches, don’t find the mysterious or the spiritual in their everyday lives. There is no magic in what they do – not even on Sundays, when they go sit indoors and listen to someone tell them what is wrong with the world.
Most people, Kage decided, don’t want anything more to be wrong with the world. They want to know there is something bigger out there, something that will change their lives. And some of them, even in the 21st century, do as their ancestors did and go looking for it in the woods and the starry sky.
Kage wanted to know what they were finding. And how.
And … I must admit, so do I. Sort of. As long as I have a good flashlight to hand, and the dog isn’t growling at things I can’t see.
Who does go there?
I don’t go looking for the paranormal, either, but on a few occasions it has sought me… Without making undue fuss about it, Tibetan Buddhism embraces what we call the paranormal. I remember one Buddhist friend’s counsel: if something odd chances by, invite it in for tea.
Certainly, Graznichovna, Kage would have done just that. I hope I would have, too. There have been a few very strange times among our many nights on the road … some we could explain, some we couldn’t. Kage cherished them.