Telegram from a Cold War Kid: An Interview with William J. Grabowski

By LEE MUNRO, of Otherworld North East research society.


LEE MUNRO: Quick intro question Bill; which book title most aptly reflects your mood today?

GRABOWSKI: At this moment–12:38 a.m.–that would have to be Ted Holiday’s The Goblin Universe. Why? Because in proofing my forthcoming book, Black Light, I realized that no matter what I’ve set down there, my gut tells me nothing can be more haunted than human beings. Holiday decided not to publish his disturbing, well-reasoned study, but after Holiday’s death Colin Wilson (who I interviewed in 1986) got permission from Ted’s family to publish. This book explored so-called cryptids–i.e. Nessie and others–in a way completely shorn of personal belief, and ended badly for the author. Here was a guy making connections between slippery (no pun there) sightings and the far more troubling possibility that human consciousness might indeed have a hand in such matters. As you probably know, Ted died very close to where he had once had what can only be described as a “man-in-black” incident. He’d seen a guy wearing motorcycle leathers, silent and somehow menacing. A heart-attack ended him literally on the spot of that sighting. I hate such accounts, but they exist. Personally, I think he was so freaked-out by what he discovered it made him terrified of even discussing it. True to the end, however, he had the presence of mind to record the incident, very different from the usual MIB accounts.

MUNROAs a working writer I imagine you need to wear two hats; a business hat and a creative hat. I’m interested – how does one approach inform the other? Also when, say you ghost-write something, is your “creative ego” put out by not getting recognised for creating (if that makes sense!)?

GRABOWSKI: Glad you asked, Lee. It’s tough having a foot in both worlds. Having worked my share of suit-and-tie jobs in the 1990s, experiencing corporate America just on the cusp of the Internet, I saw brilliant engineers reduced to tears over some project manager’s hang-up with company promotion. Quote: “We can’t have this jerk-off geek pictured on our brochures.” Well, several of those geeks moved on to California and Silicon Valley–and taught me the fine art of balancing business practicalities with creative endeavours. Though it might be–in our present global culture of people too-busy-too-live, a cliche, my old pals showed me that no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. I’ve never forgotten that. The lesson has guided me, in meeting with witnesses of the unknown, never to deny them the common reality of simple human emotion–of the hauntedness of being born into a world brimming with war and strife and mystery. We’re not as smart as we think. I delegate 30% of my work-day to submitting proposals to prospective clients in need of various writerly skills. You’re right to bring up the “creative ego” aspect of ghostwriting, as it often is painful to remain anonymous in the wake of sweating blood over six weeks’–or whatever–spent hammering out a thriller, or what have you, employing one’s best fictive “magic.” Simply put, ghostwriting gives me the financial freedom to pursue projects that would be impossible to write if I had to constantly stress out over paying bills. It can be exhausting, and I carefully structure a set amount of hours each day to such work. Newer writers need to be savvy as hell in learning the art of selling their wares. Social media makes this easier, but is more demanding than in the old days of typewriters and snail-mail. For some arcane reason, clients expect a 24/7 presence. I average about 10,000 words per week keeping up, leaving not much time for my own projects–and sleep!

MUNRO: If you were giving a class on writing, which books or articles would top your essential reading list?

GRABOWSKI: Right away, there is no better guide than William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. A 92-page bible of what to do–and what to avoid. I’ve worn out over the deacades five copies of this little paperback. My favorite of their advice: “Omit needless words.” Hell yes, brother–I’m all for that! England’s own Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves has also proved an amazingly valuable–and funny–tool I constantly refer to.

MUNRO: Much of your fiction writing seems to have paranormal/Fortean/just plain weird overtones, or as Jim Morrison might have put it, something not quite at home. Are you drawn to these themes because as a writer they allow you to explore a particular essence of storytelling, or are you drawn because of your interest in these topics away from writing?

GRABOWSKI: Cool as all get-out you mention Jim Morrison–a big influence. Mostly on following your “personal” muse no matter where she takes you. What a gifted, tormented, sadly self-destructive soul he was…America’s Arthur Rimbaud. It’s easy to overlook how young he was–how brief his candle burned. That voice! Those lyrics stabbing your soul like a doomed prophet…. His “betters” treated him like shit, and long may they roast along with drug dealers who exploited his sensitivity and chronic fear of nothingness–of crying into a war-filled void vicious and hungry for his next screaming wake-up call, heedless of the cost. His presence haunts me, because he was the first–along with your country’s unmatched Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Hawkwind and a few others–to to embrace everything beautiful and mad and strange about simply being alive in a fragmented world. Man, that was a bit of a long response, eh? In my own fictive works, I wholly embrace the fabulously “weird” ideas of Charles Fort, John Keel, Jacques Vallee, and more obscure writers like Francois Rabelais, Djuna Barnes, Andre Breton (“father” of Surrealism), Celine, Yeats, and that teetotaler Dylan Thomas. Not only for visonary ideas, but for sheer compression of thought. Every writer ought to read poetry, because it teaches how to render both ferocious emotion and sensual delights–and torture. I often wonder what the old surrealists might make of our jittery, attention-challenged global culture, where a guy in Germany can instantly respond to my Twitter reckonings on how best to grow habanero chiles! I’m drawn to constant pursuit of life’s sheer strangeness–to Jean Cocteau’s wondering why we don’t simply dissolve in our bath-water. I guess I would call this an interest–nay, obsession–with why we’re here at all, and what it’s worth. I suppose this is why so much of my fiction explores “monsters” and what they teach us about the most furious, despairing and searching, aspects of our enigmatic lives.

MUNROI first became aware of your work after stumbling across your Night Run blog, which I guess chronicles some of your writing and thoughts during the process of composing your book BLACK LIGHT: Perspectives on Mysterious Phenomena, which will be published this year. Can you give a background to the book and what your aim was in writing it?

GRABOWSKI: Black Light is my summation–no sequels–of all things uncanny and/or troubling I’ve experienced that seem to have no logical explanation, so will not have much in common with straight-out books exploring UFOs and other so-called paranormal phenomena. Who wants that? Sure, there will always be an audience for the next Roswell (non)explanation–myself seated front-row. Otherworld’s interview with the amazingly prolific Nick Redfern showed me the folly of “closure” on all things paranormal, a term I have trouble with. Nick might (my opinion only) agree that what we call “paranormal” is simply what we label undiscovered science. Or maybe not. Science does not have all the answers, and is way too reckless in dismissing alternate opinions. Seriously, Lee. I might step outside right now (in West Virginia, 25 miles from where the so-called Sistersville airship sightings of 1897 were reported; and 75 miles from Woodrow Derenberger’s Indrid Cold meeting) and bear witness to…what? A meandering Keelian light? A winged monstrosity with terrible red-glowing eyes? Here’s the thing. Would I dare tell anyone–even you–if I did? I would instantly–perhaps foolishly–approach the “anomaly.” I’d worry about my mental health; my mis-perception of a barn owl–scary damned things, let me tell you. Above all, Black Light is a chronicle of a searcher, one wary of the paranormal, but haunted by early experience with the unknown. Chapter One does its best to play fair with the reader in recalling what might have been an authentic encounter with what Carl Jung termed a “psychically overwhelming Other.” Frankly, I don’t know what I saw, but know enough not to confuse ill-recalled dream imagery with some physical creature outside my 10-year-old’s experience. Memory is tricky, and I hadn’t given the incident a single second’s thought until first reading John Keel’s Mothman Prophecies, where he tells of witnesses in nearby northwest Pennsylvania encountering bizarre (yet organic-seeming) “birds” moving between rows of corn. These unknowns were described as being nearly eight-feet-tall, with straight pointed beaks. The “bird” I saw was nothing like that, a black-eyed “penguin” perhaps two-feet tall. It scared the hell out of me, and I took a few bee-stings standing watching it–my long-gone mother thought some pervert had gotten hold of me. The entire incident, I know, rings of boyish bullshit–but there you go. I was not aware that Ohio was undergoing a UFO “wave” in 1968, nor that a policeman that same year (Dale Spauer) had chased a saucer up to the border of Pennsylvania–and had his life ruined. Worse, he took refuge in the Solon Motel–my home town. I knew none of this until much later in life. I admit this might be a case of connecting unrelated events–but it remains to me suspicious. The incident sparked my becoming a writer, and my fascination with the unknown. I couldn’t have known that John Keel himself investigated the Spauer incident, which I read about much later in his ominous The Eighth Tower. It’s listed under Ravenna, Ohio–where Officer Spauer began his car-chase.

MUNRO: You’ve recently had a post published on the Magonia Blog regarding John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, and how it affected and influenced you. More than that however, you’ve had feet on the ground of Point Pleasant, talking to people and scratching behind the myth. Maybe a big question, but peeking behind the curtain of common perception, what’s your take on the Mothman events and how the town and its people have been affected by it – either by the events in the story or the attention brought on by them?

GRABOWSKI: What a well-timed question, Lee! I have explored Point Pleasant and the TNT area at length. Boy have I! Everything short of raking the soil–like that would do any good. Up front, let me say I do know the difference between fascination and obsession–or do I? In my mind, all I’ve carried out in Point Pleasant is both. How could it be otherwise? I ask you, how can any seeker of the unknown not be taken with visiting a site so (in)famous? And less than four hours from home? Man, I could go on, but why? My take is only a bit different from much previously written about all things Mothman/UFOs/MIB and other deep weirdness. My forthcoming book, though, delves deeper into the matter. I hung out with older residents, asked some damned personal questions I’m lucky didn’t get my ass kicked, and recorded all I heard. I was astounded by the responses. You probably know of the annual Mothman Festival (created by the incredibly hard-working Jeff Wamsley), active since 2003 in Point Pleasant, WV. The biggest mistake made by cynical cable-TV documentaries (not all, but most) is in assuming the friendly residents are drunken rednecks–what a goddamned insult. Far from the reality of sharing meals with those who lost loved ones when the Silver Bridge fell on 15 December 1967–13 months to the day of the first major Mothman sighting. I choose not to delve into numerological synchronicity–what would that prove? I found locals divided: those who resent the festival, and those who embrace it. The very few folks I met who claimed to have witnessed UFOs are still shaken, but more so by the MIB “visits.” What you won’t read in any other book is that Point Pleasant grew used to the seemingly “scheduled” overflights of aerial machines bright with prismatic lighting–described to me as “diamond pure.” Keel himself had that experience, witnessing a green-lit saucer hovering over a lonely hill I have personally visited–for what that’s worth. Keel was no bullshitter–my opinion. He never once exploited any witness, and made less than $5,000 from publication of The Mothman Prophecies–until this was decades later remedied by the movie-makers. Despite what you might think you know about John Keel, he was frightened by what he found. A farmhouse puppy whose heart had been cut out in a perfect circle. Telephone messages warning against some horrible event–documented in Keel’s personal letters between himself and local newspaper reporter Mary Hyre–set to occur on the Ohio River. Whoever phoned in this prophecy either caused the bridge-fall, or knew who was going to engineer it. No matter–in my opinion–that the bridge was in poor repair. Someone knew, and they dicked around with Keel, who warned Mary Hyre not to speak of it. To me, this is far more disturbing than Mothman or UFOs, and speaks of industrial sabotage. Keel never wrote about the MIB visiting insurance offices, where blueprints for local energy concerns were located. Andy Colvin has written much about about this. It explains the absurd behavior (“What is your time?”) of so-called men-in-black, not to mention the well-dressed man Keel confronted in the TNT area at night, who was talking into a microphone and would only “grunt” at Keel’s questions. This is very telling about human manipulation of what might have begun with authentic sightings of a cryptid. I’ve knocked around desolate buildings (especially the Lakin Industrial Home for Colored Boys across from the TNT area)–since demolished, and can testify to the utter eeriness of the region. Subjective? Of course–what isn’t? And what do we make of the Point Pleasant branch of Defense Logistics Agency, recently shut down? Many red flags. Keel never went public with reports of gone-missing teens in Point Pleasant between 1966-1968. A taboo subject you’ll be hard-pressed to find, even though it’s been reported that reamins were found in shallow caves in the TNT area. This invests the whole Mothman mystery with more than is commonly acknowledged. Thanks for hearing me out, Lee!

MUNRO: We’ve talked previously about some aspects of reported anomalous phenomena and I know you at times have been drawn to, let’s call it a Jungian perspective. Can you say something about how some of Jung’s work might inform approaches to people’s experiences?

GRABOWSKI:I can. While no one can be sure of its importance, Jung did point out–after thousands of sessions–the apparent continuum between dream imagery and how that carries over into waking life. Ideas as dismaying as any paranormal theories–including UFOs and “entities” like Mothman. We should be happy that Jung wrote a book about UFOs, though took them as latent symbols. This to me is an idea almost too scary to bear–that we create our gods and monsters and UFOs. Frankly, I think he hit the proverbial nail’s head. Even a cursory review of Vallee’s Passport to Magonia tells us that UFOs and even ghostly phenomena manifest in accordance with the given country’s culture. Violent “monsters” in South America. Science Fiction absurdities in the USA (oddly aligned with UK sightings). Surreal beings whose clothing and vehicles, luminous blue and violet and green, speak absurd poetry in France, and ice-hacking dwarves in arctic regions, tell a very “anthropological” tale.

MUNRO: Are there other approaches, writers or thinkers whom you think might inform, or at least generate interesting thought experiments when it comes to anomalous experiences?

GRABOWSKI: After decades of thinking about these things, and changing my mind into the Magonian/Fortean psychosocial theory, I’m left alone in what feels like a very sophisticated joke, or test, inflicted upon random people. By “alone,” I mean unpopular. Sure, I’d love nothing more than for the 1950s helmet-headed ufonauts to be real–to care about us. To take us away from daily stress and our awful awareness of Death’s hound sniffing our souls. I’m neither arrogant or ironic saying this, Lee. Simply amazed and afraid that I’m alive at all and subject at any time to an apparent unknown among us. I find it easy to ignore the infantile believers in Grays, etc., but never enough to think they’re wrong and that I’m “right.” Who knows? Not me. I am convinced, though, that we share our world with another intelligence–even one we might create–that is as strange as “God,” and that’s enough to keep me looking. Even if there are no UFOs or ghosts or entities external to us, isn’t that absolutely mind-blowing that we think there are? That we don’t really know who we are? Sometimes I think we get the gods we deserve.

MUNRO: During your time of interest in anomalous subjects, how have you seen the subjects or approaches to them change? Do you see a regression as opposed to progression in thinking or perception?

GRABOWSKI: What a great question! Ever since my uncle Joe gave me Adamski’s Inside the Flying Saucers (poor bastard!), I’ve gone through believing in extraterrestrials visiting us in metal machines, “demonology,” collective human despair (not done with that), right up to what I suppose is called the psychosocial theory. I’m 95% convinced we are actively engaged in creating our evolution–like playful children in charge of watercolors. That remaining 5% is important. We don’t know everything. Probably never will. The whole “unknown” business might very well be in charge–for good or ill. I do–in America–see a regrettable lapse back into “alien abduction” and apocalyptic visions of powerlessness. Very scary stuff, with crossovers into political tyranny and nutty comfort cults. You can’t be involved with this and not feel a bit paranoid–god knows I have my share. And the increasing decay of individual liberties frightens me. We seem poised on living a world worse than that of the Terminator movies, because human-controlled.

MUNRO: We’re both dancers under the spell of the music that moves us. So, I want you to suggest some songs/artists; a soundtrack to a story you’ve written that stands out as a favourite, a soundtrack to accompany you while you sit in the dark in your favourite chair with the lights out holding a glass of your favourite tipple, and a soundtrack to walking around the abandoned TNT plant outside Point Pleasant at 3:33am.

GRABOWSKI: Now you’ve done it! Music is a huge presence–perhaps overly so–in my life. I’ve been a drummer in several Cleveland bands–years ago. My favorites are atmospheric stuff–Massive Attack, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Low (whose “Half Light” graces the movie soundtrack of my pal Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies), Opeth, and thanks to England, King Crimson, Genesis (pre-1980, with Peter Gabriel), REM, Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and a lot of Tom Waits. And let’s not forget Mozart and Wagner, those happy tricksters.

MUNRO: What do you have in the Grabowski pipeline? Any new fiction or non-fiction you’re working on?

GRABOWSKI: I’ve been writing a huge novel over the past 2 years, an attempt to convey the reactions of a small town to an enigmatic presence that seems like God. We’ll see…

MUNRO: Thanks for your time Bill. One more question. I know you’re a big fan of cooking. So you’ve invited OWNE around to dine. What the hell – Keel, Vallee and Jung are turning up too (hey, it’s my movie; I’ll script it how I want!). What divine culinary experience would you prepare for us?

GRABOWSKI: I know that Keel (rest him well) and Vallee don’t mind beefy dishes. Same for Jung. I would hope you and OWNE give me warning of any vegetarians…I used to be one. In a perfect meeting, you would be served Chicken Vindaloo, Ghost-Chile Stew, and a sweet ice-box lemon pie. With absinthe.



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