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BOOK REVIEW: "The Mothman Prophecies" by John A. Keel

Tor Books
A reprint of John Keel's 1975 book "The Mothman Prophecies."
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BOOK REVIEW: The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel (1975 / 2002)

Synchronicity all over the place!” – John A. Keel, The Mothman Prophecies

Such a great and simple quote from such an amazing and perceptive author and paranormal investigator. Keel was right on back when he wrote about his experiences with the “Mothman." Synchronicities would follow Keel all during the time he looked into the Mothman mystery - and in the years following it. Sometimes sync just finds certain individuals and refuses to let go. Keel was one of those people, for good or ill.

Frankly, I’m surprised it took me so long to finally read John Keel’s “true story” about the unsettling and supernatural events that took place in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia just short of 50 years ago, leading up to the devastating Silver Bridge collapse over the Ohio River on Dec. 15, 1967, which killed 46 people in those days before Christmas.

And if you have read any of Keel’s books (I highly recommend Operation Trojan Horse, which I recently reviewed), you quickly understand that he is a no-nonsense journalist who accepts the fact that there are simply things out there that we cannot explain.

Reading Keel, you have to remind yourself that he is reporting actual events as he experienced them, and also reporting on the inexplicable experiences of others who were baffled, frightened and some scared witless. He writes in a conversational manner that makes his stories easy and quick to read. He also includes lots of details – names, places, dates and so forth, something a journalist, such as myself, certainly appreciates.

When he begins chapter one of The Mothman Prophecies, titled “Beelzebub Visits West Virginia,” he begins by telling of a bearded man knocking on the door of a house in the hills near Point Pleasant. It’s a stormy night and the occupants of the home warily answer the door to find a man wearing all black and sporting a beard – asking to use the phone.

Not surprisingly, they are reluctant. They are frightened of this strange visitor. And as Keel writes, within a month or so, the couple will be dead, two among the dozens of victims of the Silver Bridge collapse.

And the strange visitor that night? It was Keel himself. He had not intended to frighten the couple in that remote location. His car had run off the road after getting into town from Atlanta where he had attended a UFO conference.

He, along with Athens, Ohio-based newspaper reporter Mary Hyre, writing for the Athens Messenger, in the area just west of Point Pleasant, had seen a strange light while out talking to eyewitnesses of strange lights in the area. Keel’s point was that the couple in the house, upon whose door he had knocked, likely felt a devilish “man in black” (a term Keel himself coined)  was visiting them, a story likely to become part of the local folklore.

Keel’s visit viewed as a dark omen. And Keel, as we learn in The Mothman Prophecies, was the lead actor in a real life play where the director is entirely unknown to the cast.

Yes, there is a tricksterish quality to Keel’s tale out of the Mountain State, a place, Keel writes, that was largely avoided by Native Americans in that part of pre-European America. Why? There seemed to be a negative force haunting those hills and valleys, speculates Keel. And from November 1966 to December 1967, it was haunting the region again.

Keel, who was based in New York City at the time, was already a fairly well-known author on UFOs and the paranormal when the Mothman saga began. While the local newspaper in Point Pleasant went out of its way to ignore the sightings and reports by frightened local citizens, Mary Hyre was willing to report on it – as was Keel, who spent many months in the area, gathering information that would later become this remarkable book. An unforgettable account of a community turned upside down by forces they cannot understand.

What was the Mothman? It was a tall (between seven and eight feet), winged, gray creature, like a bat/humanoid with piercing, red eyes that caused eyewitnesses to get damage to their eyes when they saw it.

Telling of an 18-year old woman who saw Mothman (a name coined by a newspaperman covering the story) near Point Pleasant’s golf course in November 1966 – a demon-haunted year if there ever was one – Keel began his investigation and wrote early in the book: “At the time of my first visit to Point Pleasant in 1966 I did not relate the winged weirdo to flying saucers. Later events not only proved that a relationship existed, but that relationship is a vital clue to the whole mystery.

And in that area, along the Ohio/West Virginia boundary, created by the Ohio River, strange lights were exceedingly common, as they were in other parts of the U.S. during that time period. It was as though the veil between our world and "theirs" was very thin, allowing the strange and mysterious to interact with folks who didn't like being bothered wth dark prophecies or seemingly endless nightmares.

Coinciding with the sightings of Mothman over the course of those 13 months, odd-looking men, asking lots of questions, would suddenly show up in town, making people feel uneasy. Townspeople were warned, by men claiming to be in the Air Force or other government agencies, not to talk about seeing flying saucers.

Keel would focus much of his investigation around an old, World War II-era ammunition dump and “TNT area,” near a power plant where many sightings had taken place. Keel would report going out to this area, by himself, and entering a “zone of fear,” an area, when entered, a sense of intense fear and foreboding strikes your nervous system. Keel thought he was walking through a beam of ultrasonic waves and “had nothing to worry about.” But where was it coming from? And why? What force had entered the Point Pleasant area, making life most unpleasant for increasing numbers of people?

One affected victim was Woody Derenberger. He had his own UFO sighting not far from Parkersburg, W.Va., except it seemed to be more like a car – but not. It caused Derenberger to stop his own truck and a “man” exited the vehicle and telepathically told the shocked man a few details. His name was “Cold,” which would be later revealed as “Indrid Cold.” An odd name, one that Keel speculates has to do with th enition of straight tracks of "ley lines," along which certain names such as "Cold or Cole" appear with "remarkable frequency," particularly in Britain. 

Many have connected ley lines to paranormal activity. And we know what happened when the blues singer met the devil at the crossroads ... 

"In earlier times, fairies, demons, and even human witches practicing Black Sabbath rites, chose gravel pits, garbage dumps, cemeteries, and crossroads for their appearances," writes Keel. "Modern hairy monsters and UFOs select the same sites, and quite a few UFO contacts have occurred near crossroads or on highway still under construction at points where old highways once intersected. Derenberger's first contact with Cold was on a newly completed highway yards from an old intersection.

Keel jumps ahead to the UFO wave of October 1973 and some of the similarities to earlier years. And then there are the other strange characters that inhabit Keel's world, people who may or may not be human and may not have our best interest in mind.

Keel's investigation takes eerier turns later in the book, as it becomes all the more clear that Cold and his cohorts took great interest in John Keel himself. They wanted to confuse and drive him mad. Perhaps it was because "they noticed you noticing them," as Keel would note. The strange phone calls. The impersonations of his voice and others. And the prophecies. Particularly that a major power outage would strike the northeastern United States in December 1967, on the day President Lyndon Johnson lit the White House Christmas tree.

Only that that is not the disaster that happened at that moment. Instead, much to Keel's shock, it was the Silver Bridge catastrophe in Point Pleasant, resulting in the deaths of those 46 people, many of whom had been Christmas shopping.

Keel is shocked about this. He knew something was going to happen. But not exactly what. 

Keel would die at the age of 79 in 2009.

The Mothman Prophecies is a classic yarn. A "true story" involving a tragic event. And many innocent people targeted by forces unknown in a particular place and time. And while the 2002 film of the same name starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney is an excellent film and brought renewed interest into Mothman, there are many differences between the book and the film. 

And even today, there is much interest in Mothman. Typing "Mothman" into Google News today, I found a story on the website of the Athens, Ohio News (the same Ohio city where Keel's reporter friend Mary Hyre worked) covering a story about a guy named Jeff Wamsley who runs the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant and has written several books on the topic. There are festivals focused on the Mothman. It still garners a lot of attention.

Mothman means money in Point Pleasant these days. And that's good for folks in that semi-industrial city. Yes, there's something in the air all right. Is it Mothman? Is this precognitive demon of the air returning to warn us all of impending doom at some spot on the map? 

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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