Fear of Prose and Weirdness in Indiana
This is an unusual travel book, if that term travel “book” can in fact be applied to this book. A travel book, or at least the convention of travel books, is for us to see landscape, people, architecture, and anecdote about local custom and food flirted through the I/eye of the author.
The beauty of travel books (at least from the travel writer’s perspective) is that they are a convenient rubric for a wide range of writing from the purely descriptive to the personal essay to incident and anecdote on almost any topic the travel writer happens to find interesting. The trick, of course, is for the writer to choose and focus well and to keep the writing above merely reportage. The writer and his point of view is as much a character as is the people he meets and the experiences he encounters. In short, a travel book when done well serves as a wonderful portmanteau—an intersection between the writer’s point of view and the place he is visiting.
The premise of Weird Indiana is to send some writers to a state that has a national image of being safe, conventional, and filled with the “salt of the earth” type-folk; nice decent, meat and potatoes (and corn) kind of people, far from the mores and loose morals of the eastern Babylon, New York, or the Gomorrah out west, Los Angles and far in state of mind, at least, from the nearby rough and tumble Chicago. Once the writers have arrived, have them explore the state and write how in fact nice, clean, corn-filled Indiana, home of the Hoosiers, is in fact full of odd and whacky legends and is a regular cat’s cradle of strange and outright bizarre phenomena.
The dissonance between the state’s clean self-image and revealed secret strangeness is supposed to either elicit muffled laughter or perhaps create a mawkish feeling of good God who knew Indiana was so weird! Those clever Hoosiers have been hiding their weirdness in the state closet all these years and at last Marimen, Willis, and Taylor, have ousted it into the clear light of day. Travel writing, in this case sees itself as a kind of Freudian travel writing, revealing the dark unconscious forces sitting just under the surface of normal Indiana.
The three writers do indeed uncover and explore a wide range of strange legend, weird coincidence, curious local sculpture, and just plain oddball phenomena. Take for example, the strange appearance every night of ‘Moody’s Light’, a mysterious glow that can be seen in the summer in a cornfield that runs along a stretch of Division Road between Rensselaer and Francesville. Here it is said (and can be seen) is where a lonely farmer who, after learning of the murder of his family, hung himself. His ghost is said to wander the field looking for his family with a lantern or torch; hence, the light. People swear it is out there!
Or there’s the story of a train wreck that destroyed the Hagen-beck-Wallace traveling circus in June 1918, just outside of Michigan City. Hundreds of people died and countless circus animals, many of them wild, were also killed. The animals were all buried in a mass grave in Woodland cemetery, just outside Chicago. Starting in the ‘70s people began reporting they could hear the roar and moans of the dead wild animals.
Then, there all the unusual occurrences surrounding the car parts left over from James Dean’s jinxed corvette. Souvenir hunters accidentally slashed their arms while trying to cut the bloodstained seat covers, and the engine, bought by a doctor and placed in his car, killed the poor doctor in another accident.
There are freaky abandoned buildings, such as the cruel State mental hospital, off the wall sculptures such as the Giant Candle outside of Centreville or in Franklin, there is the world’s largest chair called, amazingly enough, Big John. The writers have traveled the entire state finding ghost stories, bizarre beasts, places of unspeakable ancient murders thus a haunted spot, and cemeteries of ill-repute, sort of the dead version and opposite of brothels among the living.
But what surprises me is how three different writers (I am assuming they are, of course, different) can all write the same bland prose. The stories accumulate one after another, telling you about one strange or freak incident or place after another, but it is all done with the same mind numbing style.
Many of the stories or legends have at best a remote connection to Indiana. For example, James Dean is buried in Fairmount, Indiana and spent most of his boyhood in Fairmount but other than that you wonder why he is included in stories about Indiana. The stories have a Ripley’s Believe or Not feel to them, and would have an appeal if you are ten and sitting around the campfire with your scoutmaster in the woods late at night.
As an adult reader they sound outlandish at best and just plain foolish at worse. Yes, they do have a certain charm as local color, but most of the stories are the kind that sound great over a few beers but you have to wonder who would take the time to read them sober other than a poor reviewer.
There is according to the writers in the introduction a best-selling version of Weird New Jersey, so clearly there is an appetite for local state ghost stores, gory legends, and related poltergeist phenomena, photos of huge oddball sculptures, and abandoned state buildings that speak of a time when customs and attitudes about, say, beer or mental illness, were different.
So why they call this a travel book? There are no maps to indicate where in the state theses places are, nor again is it clear why we should care all that much about these stories other than saying they are oddball tall tales, some which are contemporary and some dating back to the pre-Civil War era (I am thinking about the story about what happened to the body of one John Brown’s sons), but do not resonate in any special way.
Weird Indiana is more a compilation of freaky places, people, and events, than a travel book about Indiana and as I read it I longed for a personal view of what the writers saw and experienced and heard. The pedestrian prose, stereotypical stories, and quirky photographs of this book do not radically change our perceptions of Indiana. They leave the reader in a stupor, much like that induced by a long drive on the interstate through mile after mile of Indiana cornfields, as far as the eye can see.