When I was a scout we had a camp out by the Clear Fork Lake, and I spent enough nights around a campfire there to hear plenty of ghost stories about how those woods were haunted.
I was a pretty gullible kid but even I didn’t believe it, because I spent so much time wandering those hills and never experienced anything the least bit eerie. Even at night, and even lost in those woods, I never had a single shiver run down my spine.
A number of neighboring farmers told me the woods were haunted, but none of them offered any particulars; and all of them seemed like they were just trying to keep me off the property. If it was the 1920s, I would assume they had a still hidden in the forest making moonshine and didn’t want me stumbling across it.
But this was the 1970s, and the whole notion of ghosts seemed rather old-fashioned to me. Still, I was curious…I just didn’t know what I was looking for.
I love that lake and I love those wooded hills, so the first chance I got as a young adult to live out there, I moved into an apartment above a garage only a couple hundred yards from the water’s edge.
My landlord was Violet—an old woman who knew more about the lake than anyone: she used to live down next to the river back before the valley was flooded. In fact, her house on Marion Avenue was the very same house she lived in down by the river: they had picked it up and moved it out of the way when the dam was built.
I asked her right away if she ever heard the woods were haunted, but she clammed up and said she didn’t want to talk about it.
She was a terrific resource though: I would find old stone foundations down by the shore and she would slip back into her childhood to tell me about barns and barn dances; roads and races and picnics and bridges. And she always mentioned wildflowers; so one day when I discovered a patch of trilliums growing near the footings where her house used to be, I dug up a whole shirtfull of them and planted them in her yard.
After that, she would tell me anything.
So one day when I asked her about the big stone fireplaces in the woods that stood on a hill above the water, she got a solemn look on her face and decided she trusted me enough to hear the story.
“Those chimneys,” she said, “are all that remain of an old hunting lodge. The Doctor built it in the ‘20s to be his hideaway. He is the one you want to research for your ghost story.”
“So the Doctor is the ghost?”
“Oh no! Not at all! You see,
“The Doctor was one of those men who marry for their wife’s money. He made plenty cash of his own eventually, by doctoring, but before then he invested his wife’s loot to make a fortune; and then he bought houses and farms all over the county so he never had to go home.
“Eventually he built that hunting lodge down by the river so he had a place where all his cronies could drink and hunt and shoot and gamble and carry on.
“It was a scandal. This was a quiet valley, and he got a phonograph machine that would play all hours of the night. There were women apparently; and there were dogs—they all had coon hounds; and there was one fella got shot. Supposedly it was an accident, but there never was any hospital report in the paper, so we figured he was buried in the woods there.”
“So the crony is the ghost?”
“Oh no! Not at all!”
“The Doctor had a huge collection of rare guns, but even more than guns what he loved was hunting dogs. He had one he paid a couple thousand dollars for, and that was his sweetheart. He even hired a groom who stayed at the hunting lodge just to take care of that dog.
“The doctor cared more about that dog than his wife, or any of his rich patients in Chicago.
“So when the dog vanished, he liked to kill that groom.
“He was sure the groom had stolen it; but the groom was a friend of my father’s, and he was as honest as rain. I heard the story he told though, and I understand why the Doctor didn’t believe him. It sounds like a strange fever dream:
The Goom’s Tale
Homer was the dog’s trainer, and the hound always obeyed his commands without him having to raise his voice; but that evening the man couldn’t even shout loud enough to be heard over the crazy howling. There was a deer that flashed through the clearing, and you couldn’t have missed it because the animal was pure white; and when the dog took off in sudden pursuit, it was already too late to speak a command because of the wild, abandoned yowling.
It was unlike any sound Homer had ever heard before: a wailing, tortured baying.
All he could do was chase them both down through the forest—the ghostly pale deer and the raving hound—and follow the echoes of that weird crying howl. Homer cut toward the river, and he intercepted the racing animals when they all got to the bridge.
There was a kind of park there back then—a place where people took their picnic dinners—they called it Shady Grove, where the river spun a wide scenic loop next to the road by the bridge. It was open enough that Homer had a clear view of what happened. He was standing on the bridge.
The white deer burst into the clearing with the hurtling dog dancing right in its hooves, and the two of them plunged into the riverbed to dash underneath the bridge. Homer saw them both in full flight charging under the iron trestle, but when he turned to look downstream neither of them came out the other side.
The barking just stopped still with only one quick echo back from the trees, and then all was stone silent.
It was so bizarre, Homer jumped down from the bridge to study the animals’ tracks in the fading light. Both prints—hooves and hound’s—simply stopped in the sand.
“So you can see why the Doctor thought it was a lie. He was furious. It wasn’t long after his famous dog disappeared when Homer disappeared too. He just vanished and we never heard another word about him; so it always seemed possible that the Doctor buried him in the woods too.
“So Homer was the ghost?”
“Oh no! The ghost was the hound.”
The Doctor loved that dog so much, he just could not let go of it. He hired search parties to comb through the whole valley, and it went on for weeks until the men were too embarrassed to take his money any longer, because they had searched every foot of these woods, the fields, the fencerows, the river.
“After that, The Doctor went into a serious decline of grieving; and it was lucky for us, because all the parties stopped.
“It wasn’t the end of those phonograph records though, because the Doctor thought if his dog heard the music he would find his way home. For a year you’d hear that stupid music coming down the valley.
“It only ended when the hunting lodge burned down; and I always suspected some farmwife from the river set the fire just to kill that phonograph.
“That shoulda been the end of it, except that winter we started hearing the hound.
“It would howl, and it would bay, and it would bark like a long slow dirge night after night until my husband couldn’t take it anymore—the dog sounded so sad—and he went out to catch it.
“But there was no dog. There were no dog tracks. Even when we heard it chasing a deer, there would be deer tracks but no dog tracks.
“My husband said it was the Doctor’s hound. He said that sometimes he could see a glow coming from the top of that hill where the hunting lodge used to be, and from down by the river it looked like the fireplace where the Doctor had been trying so desperately to call the dog home.
“Did you see it?”
“Never saw the glow. Heard the hound. Sometimes we could hear that weird tinny phonograph record too, when the wind turned just so. Couldn’t mistake it: the song was something like ‘Midnight Rhapsody’ with a sad, haunting melody.”
For the record: I have been in those woods a thousand times and I have always expected to hear the music or the howling in the autumn gusts, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The bridge is long gone—the embankment and abutments now many feet underneath the lake. There are a few photos of Shady Grove, but it was a low-lying glen that disappeared under the water in the 1940s.
A body of water like the Clear Fork Lake always implies an innate mystery, because there is so much below the surface that is never visible and necessarily unknown. All we get is the barest glimmer—the sun glinting in soft zephyrs—and all the rest as unfathomable as the past.