Texana Book Reviews -- October 1997
(by Mike Cox)


Texas Ghosts
(October 31, 1997)
A footstep, a low throbbing in the walls,
A noise of falling weights that never fell
Veiled whispers, bells that rang without a hand,
Door handles turn'd when none was at the door,
And bolted doors that open'd of themselves.
-- Alfred Tennyson, "The Ring"

Have you ever noticed that the first three letters in the word "book" are BOO?

Texas publishers have. Ghosts, they have found, sell books. Ghosts may even buy books.

"It's hard to find anyone who admits they've read a book about ghosts, but books about Texas ghosts are some of our best selling titles," says Mary Elizabeth Goldman, editor-publisher of Plano-based Republic of Texas Press. "Someone's reading them," she laughed, "unless the ghosts are buying them up."

Texas is certainly a happy haunting ground for anyone interested in the paranormal. The state may be a little shy of ivy-cloaked castles, thatch-roofed inns and wraiths floating above foggy moors, but Lone Star spooks, it appears, are as common as cowboy hats. It seems Texas has specters in every sector, a tale for every tombstone. Republic of Texas Press has four books out on ghosts.

In West Texas, devotees of the spooky story may turn to "Phantoms of the Plains: Tales of West Texas Ghosts," a 272-page softcover which sells for $16.95. The book features 106 ghost tales, from the Marfa Lights to a friendly professor at Texas Tech in Lubbock who likes to tutor students. Only problem is he's a ghost.

Folks on the coast may refer to "Ghosts Along the Coast," 234 pages at $12.95, for spiritual insight of the scary kind. This book has 73 ghost stories, from haunted lighthouses to headless horseback riders.

But the supernatural capital of Texas is San Antonio. Two books deal with Alamo City apparitions: "Spirits of San Antonio and South Texas" (206 pages, $16.95) and "When Darkness Falls: Tales of San Antonio Ghosts and Hauntings" (344 pages, $16.95).

Aside from their topic and the fact they come from the same publishing house, the books have one other thing in common: All were written by Docia Schultz Williams, Texas' most prolific profiler of phantoms. She has turned Texas ghosts into a cottage industry -- a haunted cottage, of course.

As she writes in the introduction to "When Darkness Falls," her latest in the ghost book series, "I guess I have been cast into the role of super reporter of Texas' spooks and spirits."

Williams' career as a chronicler of ghost stories began with her "Spirits of San Antonio and South Texas," which she wrote with Reneta Byrne. The book was published in 1993.

"Many people contacted me after that book's publication and told me stories about places in San Antonio I did not realize were haunted," Williams wrote. "San Antonio, Texas is certainly one of America's most haunted cities. But then, I am not at all surprised. San Antonio is such an interesting and fascinating place in which to live, a lot of folks just don't want to leave it when it's their time to go."

Even a casual perusal of Williams' second San Antonio ghost book shows it would have been easier to list the places in Bexar County which are not haunted. Williams has found frightening facts about hotels, bed and breakfast places, schools, parks, private residences and even a ghost at the local daily newspaper.

"I have not put these stories into print with the object of convincing the reader there are such things as ghosts or spirits," she writes. "I am only a storyteller, a chronicler of experiences related to me by reliable witnesses."

Williams leaves it up to the reader to decide whether ghosts are real or, as my daughter would say, "just pretend." Grownups would use the word "folklore."

It's an old problem.

Samuel Johnson pondered the issue in 1778:

"It is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death," he wrote. "All argument is against it, but all belief is for it."


Book Curses: Let the Borrower Beware
(October 24, 1997)

My grandfather used to tell me never to loan anyone a gun. But that's not quite as bad as it looks. He wasn't suggesting -- I don't think -- that I would ever let someone use one of my guns for something illegal.

Granddad was a hunter, and he was referring to firearms used for sporting purposes only. He warned me -- from experience -- that borrowers might knock a scope out of alignment, get a rifle or shotgun dirty and not clean it or return a gun accidentally left loaded.

Of course, we take a chance anytime we let someone borrow something of ours, guns, books, cars -- whatever. A big-hearted police officer I knew once loaned his car to a casual acquaintance down on his luck who said he needed to run an errand. Later that afternoon, the officer's "friend" robbed a bank and fled in the policeman's car. Since I had been present when the fellow asked my friend for the loan of his car, I ended up giving a statement to internal affairs that no mention of robbing a bank had been made.

Loaning books is not as dangerous as loaning guns or vehicles, but it can result in the loss of a book.

This is not breaking news, of course.

The problem arose not long after the invention of the medium, which occurred shortly after the invention of movable type.

With books came what are today known generically as book curses -- short, pithy warnings or observations hand-written inside the covers of everything from Bibles to collections of bawdy ballads. Often, they were written in Latin, though many were in Old English.

Some curses were short poems, as in:

May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away.

Or, in the same vein, a curse in verse:

If anyone steal it, let him be anathema!
Whoever finds fault with it, let him be accursed.
Amen.

These two curses, and numerous others, were published in 1983 in a now out-of-print book by Marc Drogin, "Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses."

Elizabeth C. Hercules of Dallas sent me an enjoyable selection of her favorite curses from the book.

The curses fit into several categories, from warnings to book borrowers to philosophy.

The toughest curse in the book ownership category:

Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn't hung, he'll drown.
And, if he doesn't drown, he'll roast,
And, if he doesn't roast, a worse end will befall him.

The best philosophy:

O for a Booke and a shadie nooke,
Eyther in-a-door or out,
With the greene leaves whisp'ring overhede,
Or the Streete cryes all about,
Where I may Reade all at ease,
Both of the Newe and Olde,
For a jollie goode Booke, whereon to looke,
Is better to me than Golde.

No author fearing the remaindering of his precious words could express it better than one W. Roberts did in 1507:

May this volume continue in motion
And its pages each day be unfurl'd,
Till an ant has drunk up the ocean,
Or a tortoise has crawl'd round the world.

Marcus Valerius Martialis offered this short book review:

Some so-so things,
Some bad, some good ones here,
And that's the way a book is made, old dear.

Hard to tell if this curse has to do with keeping a book clean or is a comment on its uplifting content:

Quisquis quem tetigerit
Sit illi lota manus.
Please wash your hands
Before touching this book.

And perhaps this 1270 AD admonition was a warning to book reviewers:

If anyone unfairly
This scribe puts down,
In Hell's murky waters
May Cerberus him drown.

Finally:

Explicit--Expliceat!
Ludere scriptor eat.
It is finished--let it finish!
Let the scribe go out to play.


Rarest 20th Century Texas Book
(October 17, 1997)

If you're given to placing an occasional friendly bet -- the loser buys the doughnuts, say -- here's a sure-fire winner: Name the most scarce, most expensive Texas-related book published in the 20th century.

I will place a side bet, covering the coffee, that most people asked this question will guess the rarest modern Texana would be something signed by J. Frank Dobie or perhaps a signed first edition of Larry McMurtry's first novel.

Certainly, those would be pricey items of appeal to many collectors, but nothing compared to a two-volume history of a South Texas county a lot of people have never heard of and one saddled with a name many people can't even pronounce: Refugio. (The correct pronunciation is Re-fury-o. Not, Re-Phug-e-o.)

The book is "Refugio: A Comprehensive History of Refugio County From Aboriginal Times To 1953," by the late Hobart Huson.

Okay, not a particularly snappy title for a book, but just try to find a copy of it somewhere. Most copies are in libraries -- assuming they have not been stolen -- or in the hands of private collectors. The last time I saw the set for sale the price tag was $1750, and I considered that a very reasonable figure. I still couldn't afford it, but it was a reasonable asking price.

So why is this book so valuable? Certainly, it is not because the author was all that famous. He was well-known in Refugio County and South Texas, where he practiced law and did historical research, but he was no celebrity writer. Nor is the book incredibly well-written, as is the case with another two-volume book by someone whose last name began with an H, Paul Horgan's "The Great River."

Huson's "Refugio" is simply valuable for its content. It is grassroots history growing stirrup-high clear to the horizon. It is a history of Texas from the Lavaca to the Rio Grande.

"No one is a more authentic Texan than Mr. Huson," Dobie once wrote. "His so-called area histories are better state histories than are most books that purport to be state histories."

In 1983, the year Huson died at the age of 90, John Jenkins included "Refugio" in his "Basic Texas Books," a book listing what Jenkins considered the fundamental works on Texas. He also included another of Huson's titles,

"Captain Phillip Dimmit's Commandancy of Goliad."

"Without doubt, this is the most comprehensive compilation on the history of any Texas county," Jenkins wrote of "Refugio."

The first volume, published in 1953, covers the history of the Refugio area up to the beginning of the Civil War. Volume two, coming out two years after the first, carries to story up to the time of publication. The books are 596 and 633 pages long, respectively, with 132 pages of bibliography and index. Jenkins estimated the book has more than 5,000 footnotes.

The quality of the content accounts for the demand side of the book's exemplification of the law of supply and demand. On the supply side of this fundamental of commerce, only a thousand copies of the first volume were printed (initially only half of those were bound) and only 560 copies of the second volume.

I know a rare book dealer in San Antonio who recently found a copy of the first volume at an estate sale. But only volume one.

"I went all over the house looking for volume two, but I never found it," he said. "Maybe for some reason the owner never bought the second volume."

The dealer put $350 on the odd volume, hoping for a customer willing to gamble that he might someday find the second volume, or, even less likely, that a buyer already owning a copy of volume two might come along.

Book dealers and collectors over the years have placed ads in the Refugio newspaper hoping to flush a local resident willing to part with their copy of Huson's county history for a reasonable price. Someone else resorted to a criminal act to get a copy, stealing the set from the local Catholic church.

Another set turned up in the early 1980s in a legal if morally deficit transaction. An elderly woman brought the "Refugio" set to a used book store, where an employee paid her a few dollars for it. In a very short time, the set was wholesaled to a dealer, who bought it for $750.

It's time for someone to reprint "Refugio" and make it available to libraries, historians and collectors at a reasonable price. In the meantime, if you have the book and would like to get it off your shelf . . . .


Mythology of the Old West
(October 10, 1997)

Sherwood Anderson, Joseph Stalin and Richard Nixon did not have much in common, other than being men. Anderson was a newspaper reporter turned short story writer and novelist. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand. Nixon became the first American president to resign from office.

But according to Princeton University professor Lee Clark Mitchell, all three of these men loved Westerns -- action-packed stories set in the Old West. To what extent the Western myth affected the lives of these three men is up to their biographers, but the fact that this myth appealed to men of such diverse background and reputation certainly underscores its power.

The Western myth has become a popular topic with writers and publishers, though the myth itself always will outsell scholarly discussions about it. How this myth has helped shape our culture is fascinating and important, but this is not likely a topic that will ever break out into the mainstream of American interest.

For one thing, many of us don't like it when someone starts tampering with our mythology. Secondly, most people find the matter of mythology a bit too esoteric. Another group has no idea what we're talking about here.

But myth is a powerful and important aspect of our culture. Any culture, for that matter. When a president starts invoking imagery of the Alamo in his efforts to explain a war thousands of miles away that will kill 50,000 Americans, as did Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the necessity of being able to separate myth from reality becomes somewhat more clear.

Not that the Alamo did not happen. But like Custer's Battle of Little Big Horn 40 years later, the Alamo is a battle still being fought, at least in the sense of what it meant.

Professor Mitchell explores the Western myth in his book "Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film." Published by the University of Chicago Press, the 331-page book sells for $34.95 in hardback.

This is not a book for the casual reader. It is a scholarly work, written for an academic audience, which means it is often needlessly egg-headish -- and occasionally downright obtuse. For example, in discussing Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning movie, "Unforgiven," Mitchell writes: "Part of the appeal of Unforgiven is attributable to its realist deflation of the male body conjoined with that body's mythic transcendence of a brutal social dynamics." That kind of writing almost makes the movie sound like a porno film.

Another scholarly work with some material on the Western myth is "Researching Western History," edited by Gerald D. Nash and Richard W. Etulain. Published by the University of New Mexico Press, this 220-page softcover sells for $24.95.

The book is a collection of eight academic papers dealing with matters of Western history, including, "The Enduring Myth and the Modern West" by Fred Erisman.

Two other recently-published books which focus on the Western myth are written for a more general audience.

Kent Steckmesser's "The Western Hero in History and Legend" was first published in 1965, but has just been brought out in a trade paperback by the University of Oklahoma Press. (281 pages, $15.95 in trade paperback.) Steckmesser zeroed in on four of the towering figures of the Western myth: Kit Carson, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and General George Armstrong Custer, showing in a very readable way how they became legendary and the difference between their legend and reality.

Also from the University of Oklahoma is a solid biography of one of the more notable purveyors of the Western myth, John Ford. The book is "John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master," by Ronald L. Davis. The 383-page biography sells for $29.95.

Director Ford, in movies like Stagecoach and The Searchers -- 54 of his 136 films were Westerns -- set the standard for the genre and helped create one of the more notable icons of the mythological Old West, John Wayne.


The Alamo City: A Worldclass Attraction
(October 3, 1997)

Sitting safely outside the splash zone at Sea World of Texas waiting to see Shamu the killer whale and his pals, I found my mind schooling off to the late 1600s.

What would the Spanish priests and soldiers have thought if they could have known that the settlement they were about to start someday would be the home of America's largest marine amusement park? If they were here today, would they have me clapped in irons and burned at the stake as a heretic if they saw me pushing my daughter around in a plastic dolphin-shaped stroller that cost $6 to rent?

My mind racing in time as fast as one of the park's white-sided Pacific dolphins -- a species not naturally occurring in the San Antonio River -- I wondered what the defenders of the Alamo would have done in 1836 if they knew they were about to lay down their lives so that I could someday take daughter Hallie to see a bunch of beluga whales splash tourists and eat fish? I came up with no answers to these cosmic questions as we sat there waiting for the show to start, but I do know how San Antonio became one of the world's premier tourist destinations, an evolution that made places like Sea World and Fiesta Texas possible. (Conde Nast Traveler magazine reported in 1992 that the Alamo City was the ninth most popular city in the world, right there between Paris and Venice. In the United States, only Santa Fe and San Francisco had greater appeal.)

Sea World, nearly 200 miles from any body of water resembling an ocean, would not exist had it not been for San Antonio's successful attempts to preserve much of its architectural history. Doing that made San Antonio an interesting city, one with a rich mix of landmarks reflecting its equally rich mixture of cultures. San Antonio probably still would have grown into one of the country's larger cities without its venerable landmarks, but the city would not be as attractive as it is.

As distinctive as the Alamo, and nearly as unique, is a new book which tells how San Antonio has managed to preserve its uniqueness: "Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage" by Lewis F. Fisher with a foreword by historian T.R. Fehrenbach. Published by Texas Tech University Press, the 552-page book sells for $35.

Fisher's book is a well-researched and interestingly written history of historical preservation in San Antonio. The movement began in 1883, when the state bought what was left of the Alamo so that it could be saved as a shrine to Texas independence. With that purchase, the Alamo became the first landmark west of the Mississippi River to be bought by a public body for purposes of preservation.

Eight years after the Alamo became state property, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas was formed. In 1905, that organization began caring for the Alamo, a trusteeship that continues today. In 1924, the San Antonio Conservation Society was founded and began work to save other venerable Alamo City structures. Some were lost over the years, but more were saved.

Fisher's book tells the story of the society's efforts, and along with it, amounts to something of a history of San Antonio. The book is further enhanced by a series of interesting photographs, including images of some Spanish colonial structures which no longer stand.

We ended our day in San Antonio in another of the city's distinctive landmarks, the 64-year-old Earl Abel's restaurant on Broadway.

The restaurant's present home was built in the early 1940s, and except for some interior remodeling and expansion, it looks about like it did the first time I went there as a little boy with my grandparents.

We had come to San Antonio so I could see the Alamo, which was not yet even air-conditioned. And though San Antonio had plenty of exotic animals at the zoo in Brackenridge Park, no one had thought yet of bringing whales to Texas.


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