I once had a political-science professor who believed that air conditioning had destroyed the fabric of our society. Before air conditioning, he said, people spent summer nights sitting outdoors on stoops and porches and park benches — and they told stories. They shared common beliefs.
We don’t have those stories anymore. Our stories come from the artificial world of television, and television makes us all outsiders. It makes us conscious of what we are not. But the old-time stories told us who we are by defining the fringes; the oddities and exceptions circumscribed our world and gave us a place in the middle.
In his new book, Unexplained Mysteries of Jacksonville and the Surrounding Area, Scott Maruna has done a wonderful thing: He has captured exactly the type of stories that are being lost to the generations who no longer sit on porches with his assortment of ghost stories, bizarre legends, animal stories, and weird weather conditions, some bearing Maruna’s unique twists.
Here’s an excerpt from page 59: “The students [at Jonathan Turner Junior High School] — at an age where they love to tell stories and scare the skittish — must be wholly unaware that their school building is built directly overtop a cemetery. I know some adolescents in that age range who cringe at the idea of even being in a graveyard out of the squeamishness of ‘standing on dead people.’ Well, how about learning algebra on dead people?”
Maruna, a science teacher and contributor to Illinois Times, identifies himself as a Christian. Early in the book he addresses the question of whether Christians should believe in ghosts. His conclusion? He quotes Jesus after the Resurrection, speaking to his disciples: “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Then, Maruna comments, “If there were no such thing as ghosts, why would the omnipotent savior of the world waste any words pointing out what ghosts do not have.”
Some of the questions he raises have equally clear answers. Some leave you to make up your own mind. Maruna has researched his subjects. He quotes 100-year-old articles from the Jacksonville Journal, an 1882 issue of Scientific American, and myriad other old and new sources.
A visit to Maruna’s Web site, www.swampgasbooks.com, reveals the depths of the author’s commitment to weirdness. Maruna’s other books include The Mad Gasser of Mattoon and The Piasa Bird Petroglyph. On the site, Maruna explains how his press came to be named Swamp Gas Books: “While I am far from convinced that ‘UFOs’ are ‘alien vessels,’ I am quite certain that they were not ‘swamp gas.’ My writings tend to lean in that direction . . . taking a second — and scientific — look at already explained phenomena and incidents.”
Unexplained Mysteries of Jacksonville has its flaws, so perhaps in subsequent editions the author will do some revising and editing. It’s not the best written book in the world, but Maruna has done a wonderful thing in capturing these stories and sharing them. The book is clearly a labor of love, and it’s worth reading.
Carol Manley is a regular contributor.