Photo credit: Noah Greenberg
Come. Sit by the campfire with me.
I want to tell you a story.
A ghost story.
There may have been a few beforehand, and there were definitely hundreds after, but if I were to attempt to pinpoint the very first ghost story that rooted itself in my mind, that really burrowed under my skin like a tick and spread its bacteria-laden saliva throughout my subconscious so that I would carry its infectious narrative around with me for the rest of my life, well, then... that story would have to be none other than the terrifying tale of Tailypo.
This was the summer of ’89. Fifth grade. I couldn’t have been older than 11 at the time. Perhaps even 10? Here I was, embarking upon my first foray into 4-H sleepaway camp.
This was what my summer held:
Canoe rides in the neighboring lake. Sharing bunks with the boys, comparing our armpit hair or lack thereof. Lip-syncing to Great White’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” for the talent show. Sneaking out at night and throwing pebbles at the girl’s cabin. Roasting marshmallows and slapping the gluey goo in each other’s hair until it hardened into a calcified crust that only scissors could remove. Plucking ticks from our shins. The poison ivy blanketing our bodies. Singalongs by the bonfire. My god, all the songs, bolstered by dozens of boys and girls, until it filled the forest. I can still hear the echo of our chanting voices — "And the green grass grows all around, all around, and the green grass grows all around"
— seeping into the surrounding trees.
But what I remember most about the summer of ’89 was Tailypo.
His sharp claws.
His red eyes.
Perhaps you know him as Tailypoe (wink-wink, nudge-nudge
) or even Taileybones or simply Taileybone, but for me, he will always and forever be...
We can debate over the phonetics, but to my ear, his name was pronounced Tail-ee-poo
, bringing in a bit of the scatological to our summer camp discourse.
I can’t remember the counselor who told it. His name has long since faded. But the cadence of his voice still lingers in my ear decades later. Even now, I can hear him. His breath. The way he halted at the cusp of something terrifying, letting the sounds of the outdoors seep into his story. The cicadas. The warping of a tree branch just at our backs. The crackle and hiss of the fire. This counselor certainly was seasoned in the ancient art of campfire stories, whoever he was, having done it for lord knows how many summers. There’s no telling how many times he’d told this exact same story to however many hundreds of campers... but he found a captive audience in me. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but class was now in session.
These voices need to breathe.
The campfire was surrounded by rings of chopped logs for kids to squat on. Our own outdoor arena for the summer. The wood was somehow always wet, the logs all softened, sinking into the earth. I couldn’t help but dwell on the insects squirming beneath me as I listened.
Have you ever heard the tail of Tailypo? It happened in the woods, not so long ago. Underneath the trees just like these. Who knows? Perhaps it was here that it took place...
A hermit lived in these woods. He and his three hounds were always struggling to find food in during these lean times. They went hunting one night, only to come upon this... thing
What was it, exactly? A dog? Bobcat? The hungry hermit couldn’t tell for sure. It was matted in coarse, black fur. It had the sharpest claws. Its eyes, even at night, glowed in a cinderous red, like coals.
But its tail... Its tail belonged to an alligator. Something reptilian. Certainly not any creature that lived within these woods. But it was plump. Meaty.
The hermit fired his rifle and severed the creature’s tail, just as an autotomic lizard will self-amputate its own appendage to escape. Oh, how the hermit’s mouth watered! That night, he made a stew with that tail as the main ingredient. He had never tasted meat quite like this. He devoured it all, barely sharing with his three hounds. There wasn’t anything left by bedtime.
Imagine sitting around the campfire when this counselor of mine eased into the next part of the ghost story...
Imagine being aware of the woods at our backs, the trees bending in the breeze as he spoke of something clawing at the cabin door as this hermit struggled to sleep.
Imagine the hairs on the back of our necks beginning to prickle as soon as our counselor lifted his voice to an eerie, unnatural pitch, mimicking this black-furred creature as it spoke:
Tailypo... Tailypo... I want my tailypo.
No spoilers here.
I won’t give away the ending, I promise. But the further we plunged into this story, the more immersed in the moment I became. I remember everything. The sensory experience of it all. The woods. The night. The sounds of insects. The sounds of the fire. The lack of light beyond the blaze. The bugs beneath my seat. The itch of tick bites on my shins.
And the story! This glorious ghost story, a flavor of Appalachian folklore that insinuated itself throughout the South, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and into my dreams...
This was my first ghost story.
We all have our first.
Tailypo was mine.
I’ve been chasing that tale ever since. When writing the stories that matter most to me, it has always been a priority of mine to attempt to distill the oral tradition onto the page. Consider it something akin to capturing lightning bugs and sealing them inside their own mason jars. The narrative — the very voice of the storyteller itself — is something to preserve on paper.
Just don’t forget to punch holes in the lid. These voices need to breathe.
We all hear Holden Caulfield’s inescapable voice when we read Catcher in the Rye
. Ishmael is in our heads when we plow through Moby Dick
. Or The Butcher Boy
. Invisible Man
. Pale Fire
. Jesus’ Son
. There is an essence to the text, something that exists in between the words themselves, that activates the very narrative we are reading. It is something ethereal to the written word that drifts about the page, haunting the empty spaces. It is breath. It is voice.
It is there. Invisible, yes, but always there.
Poe would become my personal lodestar. I always felt the frenzy of his unreliable narrators in that moment of their sweet release. I always get a thrill at the unhinged victory of "The Tell-Tale Heart,"
when our raving host unveils the corpse decomposing below the floorboards: "'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! here, here! — It is the beating of his hideous heart!'"
I have been chasing these voices for my own stories for years now. Hoping to distill them, like ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and his field recordings. I wanted to capture their stories and encase them on the page. Immerse the reader in the sensory experience that mimics listening to a story as it is told in person, along with everything that happens while it is told. The negative space of a story, the breath in between the words. The very teller of the tale.
All in hopes of returning to that original campfire.
My first campfire.
In writing my new novel, The Remaking
, I wanted to honor that summer of ’89 and its profound effect on me. The oral tradition, the stories we tell each other, the tales that never make their way to printed matter seemed like an interesting place to begin a book. What is that ethereal story that has been shared around the campfire for years, but has left no published footprint? I looked to those urban legends that drifted through the South in search of a voice.
Lo and behold, I discovered the story of the Little Witch Girl of Pilot’s Knob.
I could chalk it up to fate. She had been waiting for someone, anyone, to find her and tell her story. Death has silenced her, but her tragic tale demanded telling. To be heard. Her story feels as relevant today as when it originally happened nearly a hundred years ago...
Which is all to say that this really happened.
A true story, right at your back.
She spoke to me.
I won’t tell her story here. For that, you’ll have to read The Remaking
. I only pray I did her justice.
Who knows? She may find her way back to the campfire one of these summers.
Maybe it’ll be yours...
÷ ÷ ÷
Clay McLeod Chapman
writes books, children’s books, comic books, and film. His most recent novel, The Remaking
, hits shelves on October 8th. Please visit him at www.claymcleodchapman.com