Ghost stories are as much a part of the cultural landscape of West Virginia as quilting and log cabins. From the eastern panhandle to the islands of the Ohio River, tales of supernatural are told from ridge to hollow, country to city and from pioneer history to modern times. Some stories carry elements of possible origins in Europe; others are uniquely American.
It is easy to understand why ghost stories abound in the mountains. Sit on the porch of a country home and watch the evening mist rise from the hollows. The landscape is transformed to something strange and unknown, hinting at shapes that disappear if you stare too long. Visit an abandoned homestead where old washtubs, neglected flowerbeds and falling chimneys tell of those who once lived there, and you might feel that the long-dead residents left something of themselves behind too.
The tales are told and re-told, passing from generation to generation. Friends and neighbors have told me many ghost stories, like The Holly River Ghost and Wizard Clipp. I read stories in history books and library files, where I discovered Sidna’s Story and Burnt House. I met The Greenbrier Ghost on a roadside marker near Lewisburg, West Virginia. Each story invited me to do more research and to imagine the times and places where the events occurred. I visited each site and from these sources, imaginings and research came the tales in this collection. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
I am often asked, “Is that story true?” I can only answer that if you believe, then it is true for you.
About Granny Sue:
Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein develops her stories from folklore, history, and personal narratives. Performances of Appalachian stories include background information and artifacts to enrich the educational content so that audiences develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of West Virginia’s unique culture and heritage while being entertained with lively tales and ballads. West Virginia Ghost Stories is one of her most requested programs.
Although her focus is on Appalachian culture, Granny Sue’s repertoire includes original versions of world folktales, family stories and participation stories. Her adult and family programs often include British and Appalachian ballads sung in the traditional unaccompanied style and opportunities for audience sing-along.
A member of the National Storytelling Network, the West Virginia Storytelling Guild and several regional storytelling and writing organizations, Granny Sue is also a published writer. She has conducted writing workshops at Moundsville Public Library and for the Mercer County High School Writing Camp, and is frequently invited to speak to book groups and other organizations about her writing and storytelling interests. She maintains an active daily blog, writes a monthly column for Two-Lane Livin’ and is a frequent contributor to BlogHer, Professional Storyteller and other online sites.
Stories and ballads on this recording include:
Wizard Clipp. Probably the earliest recorded ghost story that happened within the boundaries of what is now West Virginia, this strange tale of unnatural events on the Livingston farm was documented in a book and church records at the time it occurred.
Burnt House. A story from the days of the old turnpikes and stagecoaches, when the traveling medicine shows were great attractions in rural areas. An unfortunate liaison leads to unholy deeds and untimely death. Like Wizard Clipp, the story explains how a small community acquired its name.
Pretty Polly. A mountain murder ballad with roots in the British tradition, Pretty Polly is a popular song with bluegrass bands today. Many variants exist, including The Gosport tragedy, The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, The Wexford Girl, and others.
Holly River Ghost. I tell this story almost exactly as it was told to me by a young girl from Diana,WV. Like ballads, ghost stories are often found in different versions in different locales. I have read a similar story that supposedly occurred in Taylor County, West Virginia. My young informant told the story in a matter-of-fact manner that lent credibility to the tale.
Railroad Boy. Although there is no ghost in this ballad, its haunting melody and tragic ending seem to fit with ghost stories. Other versions of this sad story include The Butcher Boy, Go Dig My Grave, Blue-Eyed Boy and many more.
Sidna Davis. I found this story in the 1906 book Pioneers in Jackson County: A History of Mill Creek and Sandy Valley by John A. House. The location where the events supposedly occurred is not far from my home. Sidna would likely have been yet another unknown pioneer woman had not someone told her story to Mr. House.
The Cruel Blacksmith. This ballad began as a poetry-writing challenge. I realized that my poem about Zona Shue, the Greenbrier Ghost, could be sung to the tune of Barbara Ellen, and so a new ballad was born.
The Greenbrier Ghost. The best-documented and most famous ghost story in West Virginia, court records of the case confirm that the testimony of a ghost was used to convict a man of murder.
What Others Say About Granny Sue:
“Granny Sue has the most hauntingly beautiful voice that went just right with her powerful story… She had the crowd in the palm of her hand. Just beautiful!” Karen Chace, Massachusetts storyteller
"Granny Sue, starts her tale by belting out the strains of a love song like a young Loretta Lynn… you must get her to tell you the tale of Rain and Snow, it's potent with emotion." Mel Davenport, Texas Storyteller
“Mrs. Holstein, thank you for telling ghost stories. I liked that better than anything!” Jamie Payne, student
“You put into action a wonderful, quality program for our haunted house. Presentation was excellent!” Veronica Powell, Kelsi Manor Bed and Breakfast
“Your commitment to fascinate and entertain our visitors with the tales and truths of Appalachia is unprecedented.” Sonja Wilson, WVU Mountaineer Week
“Your wonderful storytelling and sparkling personality went a long way in making our celebration a success.” Nancy Utt, Prickett’s Fort 25th Anniversary Celebration
“Spooky stories around the campfire really captured the audience’s attention.” Lynn Watts, Supt. of Recreation, Kanawha County Parks
"Your performance received high praise from the audience and other tellers alike. Granny Sue Holstein is fast becoming a favorite with Pittsburgh audiences.” Mary Morgan Smith, Three Rivers Storytelling Festival
“The interaction with the children made this program special.” Pamela Roach, Children’s Librarian
“Granny Sue has been described as one of the few tellers that is equally effective with any age audience and her variety of material helps her present the right story for the right audience.” Robert F. McWhorter, WV Storytelling Festival Director
“I never saw children sit so still and captured by stories.” Karen Enderle, library director
“The program was right on target. The presenter demonstrated how stories could be presented to encourage student involvement and present difficult themes in an accessible way. The program was just what we hoped for: relevant, informative, and entertaining.” Bill McGinley and Kym Randolph. WV Education Association Conference chairs