John Keel died this month in 2009. Though my “take” on so-called paranormal matters has wholly changed, John’s fierce curiosity and journalistic bravado remain a constant inspiration. This piece first appeared on The Magonia Blog, and caught the attention of George Knapp (Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, KLAS/CBS-TV), who later invited me to be a guest on syndicated radio show Coast to Coast AM.
To label John A. Keel’s 1975 The Mothman Prophecies “a classic” is like calling a Jaguar XJ “good transportation.” Across decades, from music-obsessed teen to full-time writer/editor, I have observed the book’s divisive effect on readers. Too, I have noticed another effect: astonishment, mingled with fear.
At 17, many things were working to open my mind, but Keel’s utterly entrancing — and terrifying — account of Point Pleasant, West Virginia’s seeming invasion by a William Corliss catalog of anomalies, the winged Mothman as host, detonated my skull.
To my much-younger self, residing in northeast Ohio (under four hours’ drive-time from Point Pleasant), Keel’s journalistic deadpan frightened me with its apparently nonfictional descriptions of pure nightmare: Mothman, the seven-foot-tall winged entity with eyes glowing red like bicycle reflectors; sinister MIB whose gushing threats were only amplified by absurd behavior; UFOs studded with prismatic lights, menacing the skies as if scheduled; isolated homes terrorized by the cries of invisible babies in dead gray hours; pounding poltergeists; bizarre telephone calls; and Keel’s dawning dread that someone, or some thing, knew in advance his every move, even mimicked him both telephonically and physically.
I’ll tell you, more than any other book, The Mothman Prophecies profoundly affected how I viewed the world, at once disturbed me and opened my mind to dark forces churning behind the days.
What made the read bleaker still was my recalling, well into it, watching television on 15 December 1967, when network news interrupted to tell us that the Silver Bridge, laden with rush-hour traffic, had collapsed into the icy black waters of the Ohio River.
Decades later, at the 2003 Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, I briefly met John Keel on his way out of a shop where he had been signing books — lots of books. I didn’t then know about his failing vision, attributing his guarded stride to age. How tall he was! I’m 5 feet 11 inches, and Keel had a few on me. His white suit, black shirt, and white tie stood out among the hundreds of attendees, as if Keel were still flipping the bird (pun intended) at his old enemies by presenting as an anti-MIB. Perhaps he was.
I visited Point Pleasant, and surrounding areas, four times more, explored the vast TNT area where once stood the North Power Plant, site of the (in)famous 15 November 1966 Mothman sighting by Linda and Roger Scarberry, and Steve and Mary Mallette. This 3,655-acre range, about seven miles north of Point Pleasant, is also known as the McClintic Wildlife Management Area, and has required over the years much reclamation to restore the ponds and fields and woods from industrial toxins recklessly handled during World War II, when the region was called the West Virginia Ordnance Works and site of explosives production.
Walking and driving in the TNT area (especially at night) is a soul-tweaking experience. Miles and miles of lightless narrow roads, populated with creaking crickets and trees hissing in the wind. It isn’t hard to believe practically anything might happen, and no one the wiser. Keel described its silent desolation with masterful precision, and during the Mothman/UFO activity spent countless hours alone there. Even local police feared joining him.
Another aspect of The Mothman Prophecies that chilled me was Woodrow Derenberger’s account of his 2 November 1966 meeting with alleged ufonaut Indrid Cold, on then new Interstate 77 near Parkersburg, WV (not far from where I now live). My family, then living in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Solon, travelled that same highway during summer vacations throughout the 1960s.
I am not a “believer,” in the sense accepted by Magonians and Forteans alike, but do think something occurred in Point Pleasant, some of which might have involved genuine anomalies. But, like the late Jim Keith and still-on-this-side-of-the-ground Andy Colvin (author of the Mothman’s Photographer series of books, and producer of an eleven-hour documentary), I think the town was selected for an ambitious psyops program, perhaps associated with some MK-ULTRA sub-project. After all, Defense Logistics Agency once had a facility there.
It is sad to know how little Keel benefited, financially, from the book’s publication. This would eventually be remedied — decades later — when it was optioned for film production.
I have read The Mothman Prophecies many times, referred to it for my own writing — fiction and nonfiction, and it holds up quite well. Sure, that scoundrel Gray Barker was responsible for a few hoaxes, and Keel busted him for most of them. Even after watching the PBS Gray Barker documentary, Shades of Gray, I find the man’s behavior inexplicable, though do value his very early work.
John Keel, at least in my mind, never was burning so bright as during the writing of The Mothman Prophecies. Hell, he actually gave us two books, as the publisher considered Keel’s original manuscript too thick. Keel published, after additional editing and writing, this “left-over” material as the equally classic (if more sober) The Eighth Tower, recently reissued by Anomalist Books.
Above all, John A. Keel taught me a dark truth: “The universe does not exist as we think it exists. We do not exist as we think we exist.”
Take that, cynics.