Professor B.J. Hollars set out, after a challenge from his writing students, to investigate his region’s tales of inexplicable monsters and events of “high strangeness,” that is, “encounters that are improvable either as events or illusions.”
I’ve selected the Midwest as my testing ground because as a midwesterner, I’m well-versed in our region’s oddities. And I’m well aware, too, that most people aren’t. We Middle Americans have grown accustomed to being overlooked, which is precisely why outsiders ought to look a bit closer. The West Coast has its Bigfoot and the East Coast has its Champy, but what–beyond hot dish–could the Midwest possibly provide? Trust me, the Midwest is just as murky and mysterious as the next place.
The Midwest encompasses, in his explorations, a bit more than I usually think of in that region. He loops in the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, for example. A minor point, because Hollars is such a charming guide to this weird corner of American folklore and the reasoning giving rise to it that actually, I would’ve read much more of this. I thought before reaching the epilogue that maybe this would be the first in a series (hoping he’d cover the East Coast next because we have lots of beasties and high strangeness too — do the Jersey Devil!)
Alas, in the epilogue, he explains that this exploration had to end. He references the well-known warning of staring into the abyss and finding it staring back. (In his words: “When you embrace the strange too tightly there’s a chance it embraces you back.”)
I enjoyed learning about these stories because they’re strange and unusual, but no matter how bizarre or unlikely, they’re part of our lore for a reason. What Hollars does so well is show why these became ingrained in our imaginations.
Hollars is an author of multiple nonfiction titles on a broad spectrum of topics, and is also an English professor in Wisconsin. He draws on this academic and literary background to establish his position going into this one-year project: “We in academia simply have little patience for the weird: get with the facts and spare us the speculation.” I appreciate that attitude in approaching this topic, I think it’s a better one to have than slack-jawed gullibility. Or, as one woman involved with the Beast of Bray Road tells him, “You should be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out the back of your head.”
He doesn’t immediately take the angle of debunking, but also doesn’t accept the stories at face value. Instead, over his year of “living strangely,” he collects stories of monsters, martians, and “the weird” and places them in context to analyze what they reveal about their regions, eras, economics, and something about human nature. He explores the Beast of Bray Road, a bipedal wolf-like animal reported in 1936 in Wisconsin; the Kensington runestone of Minnesota; Oscar, a monster snapping turtle in Churubusco, Indiana and the mild-mannered farmer who became his Ahab; UFOs and a run-in with aliens who came bearing pancakes; and the “Hodag” from northern Wisconsin lumberjack territory, a thoroughly debunked but still ongoing creature hoax with a complicated economic connection to the town of Rhinelander.
The Hodag hoax is an interesting example of how valuable some of these stories are for their communities, even over the long run. Hollars finds that “over fifty local businesses have co-opted the Hodag in some fashion. One can get his oil changed at Hodag Express Lube, then purchase a firearm at Hodag Gun & Loan, then complete the day by enjoying a bit of “Hodag Poop” from the local candy store. The Hodag’s ubiquity is proof of its lasting power, and today, locals know to cash in.”
This is what makes this book especially fascinating — myths don’t materialize from nothing. There’s background, and no short amount of logic, to each of them. He quotes Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” giving a nod to inexplicable possibility. He’s respectful about those with firmly-held supernatural beliefs and takes a neutral stance between skepticism and acceptance. The results of his explorations are reasonable while still wildly entertaining. But I found that it’s probably more appealing to those of us who insist on logical, scientific explanations for bizarre sightings and unexplained happenings.
And it’s just a lot of fun. He strikes a perfect balance of humor and history, fact and myth, and is a smart, amusing guide to the Midwest’s supernatural mysteries.
Sobering as it is, such a clear-eyed assessment offers the kind of logical conclusion I’m desperate to hear, a counterpoint to the stranger theories I’ve heard. Which is not to discount those theories, but to shed light upon them. Light that, with any luck, refracts back with a better answer.
Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country
by B.J. Hollars
published September 1, 2019 by University of Nebraska Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.