Share this article

print logo

Joseph Xavier Martin: Dad’s spooky stories brought chills, thrills

In my mind’s ear, I can hear the eerie cadence of words even now. Dad would have a flock of us gathered around a campfire at night, on Brant beach along the Lake Erie shore, just south of Buffalo, in the early 1950s. Our family had owned cottages there and rented the land from the Seneca Indians since the 1920s, when Granddad and his brothers used to run whiskey from Long Point in Canada to Silver Creek, during Prohibition.

By this time of the evening, Dad would have downed a few beers to “loosen up the pipes.” We sat expectantly, waiting for the exciting yarns that were to come. Television was still in its infancy then and many people, us included, didn’t yet have sets in our homes.

“Luke, tell us a story.” Dad would launch into some fascinating tale of ghosts who had lost their golden arms and came looking for the miscreant who had taken them. It was a time in America when all things alien and eerie held us in rapt fascination.

You could feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck as Dad intoned in a stentorian whisper, “and the ghost got closer and closer, always whispering, ‘who stole my golden arm?’ ” The conclusion was always some precipitous denouement with a gesture or sound that made us jump or cry out. Dad was a showman, as well as a storyteller.

Afterward, no matter how brave a front we put on, we listened intently to the night sounds of the beach around us, dreading that odd squeak of an opening door, or other mysterious sounds in the night, that could portend the arrival of something that we never wished to see. The feelings, of course, vanished with the rising sun. But they always lurked at the back of our consciousness when night fell and the blackness again surrounded us.

We never walked by the closed door of our third-story attic without wondering who or what had taken roost there since the passing of the sunlight hours. And forget about walking into the stygian darkness of the basement. That would never happen. Basements and attics are for the revealing and protective light of daytime only.

If there was an adult Stephen King around in the early ’50s, he would have made a fortune capturing and writing the stories that my father told us. We didn’t then know about the chilling tales of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. Those were spine-tinglers for us yet to discover. I don’t think Dad knew about them either. He and his people were honest workmen who had little formal education.

Still, they came from Hibernian stock where ancestors for thousand of years had sat around the smoky peat fires of Eire and talked of fairies and banshees of old, always awalk in the eerie darkness of the night. And always looking for the unwary.

It is only now, some 60 years later, that these same stories Dad told us float upward from the dark recesses of my childhood imagination, when we were afraid of everything. I guess I have more time to reflect on them now, in retirement, when the age-old memories surface first and what we had for lunch yesterday is a forgotten mystery.

And each year the mental picture of my father, alive and laughing in his vibrant 30s, becomes a little sharper for me.

Thanks, Dad! May the roads rise up to meet you.