On a bright and sultry afternoon, L.B. “Bob” Taylor strolls into a Starbucks, refreshed by a nap following his weekly round of Friday morning poker. Wearing a sunny yellow and blue striped polo shirt and downing black coffee, the retiree delves into the history of the dark and sometimes funny ghost stories he's gathered and told over the past three decades, his voice rising above the coffee bar's hissing steam.
Taylor writes to save Virginia's ghosts, one tale at a time.
“It's the preservation of a part of our history that I thought was being lost in this electronic clutter of TV, the computer, high-tech and the Internet,” he says. “We've almost lost a lot of our good old ghost stories, although I emphasize that these aren't stories, they're actual experiences that people claim to have.”
You can find copies of the Lynchburg native's 13 volumes of “The Ghosts of Virginia” on the shelves in local libraries. Taylor has volume 14 in hand and is midway through volume 15, adding to the pile of ghostly tales he's recounted since 1983.
“It's kind of an obsession,” he acknowledges. “I love Virginia history. And it's fun.”
The 77-year-old worked at what's now Kennedy Space Center during the space race. That's when “spooks” were Cold War spies. His early nonfiction included books on rocket science, such as “For All Mankind: America's Space Programs of the 1970s and Beyond.” He began to venture into the supernatural when an editor at Simon and Schuster asked him to write “Haunted Houses.” That led to his book on the ghosts of Williamsburg, which has sold more than 150,000 copies. He followed that success with collections focused on Richmond, Charlottesville and Fredericksburg, among other Virginia locales.
Ghosts are big nationwide. About a third of American adults believe in spirits and three-quarters profess at least one paranormal belief, according to recent Gallup surveys. Phantoms terrorize television with “Ghost Hunters,” “Ghost Adventures” and “Most Haunted.” Locally, tourists seeking a fright stroll the streets of Shockoe Bottom or Church Hill. Scott and Sandi Bergman's four Haunts of Richmond tours include promising encounters with alcoholic spirits in River City pubs. The Virginia Tourism Corp. even lists ghost tours on its website alongside Ghostly Haunts in Virginia.
There are so many organized tours that “The Original Ghosts of Williamsburg Candlelight Tour” proclaims its authenticity with roots in Taylor's book. Tours have become a cottage industry, with one in many a Virginia hamlet or city, Taylor sniffs. “They're everywhere.”
That doesn't surprise him. Virginia oozes ghost tales because of its rich muck of history and tragedy, slaves and masters, wars and rebellions, he says. That's not to say that a well-lighted Starbucks couldn't be haunted. All it would need, Taylor says, sweeping his arm to encompass the blond wood tables and nearby baristas, is the untimely death of a beloved young employee in unusual circumstances.
“Oh, sure,” he says, warming to the idea of a teen tragedy turned paranormal. “That's when people say they see ghosts. That causes a spawning ground for ghosts.”
To rise above the level of spooky footsteps in an everyday house and earn a place in Taylor's books, a Virginia ghost story must have key elements: history, tragedy and an unusual phenomenon or twist.
Taylor demonstrates with one of his favorite Richmond ghost stories. According to the original story that the author found in the Virginia Historical Society archives, a young girl named Nancy Green walked an empty stretch of Broad Street on the eve of her 16th birthday in 1811. An eerie voice warned her, “Nancy, Nancy, Nancy Green, you will not live to see 16.” Despite her pleas to stay home that night, her aunt insisted on taking the frightened girl to see a play at the Richmond Theater. She died in the historic fire that swept the building, killing 72 people.
Taylor suspends judgment on whether any of this is real. His only “encounter” with a ghost came in the dead of night on the driveway to a reputed haunted house in Bowling Green. While he got out of his car he felt a strange, heavy pressure on his chest.
It turned out to be a rather large, friendly black Labrador.
“That's an example of ghost humor,” he says, laughing. “I've written about it.”
Retired University of Richmond psychology professor Frederick Kozub says he too laughs at ghost tales, but that we need to remember that they're fiction. Kozub, who for about 15 years taught a class on critical thinking called “Psychology, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal,” says ghost stories help humans cope with the things that truly scare us: death, the afterlife and hostile forces that we don't understand. The telling of the tale is part of our cultural experience, he adds. “People enjoy being scared in a safe place.”
Taylor describes himself as a craftsman or recounter of ghost stories rather than someone who invents new tales. He's unearthed stories in the archives of the Virginia Historical Society, the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College and the University of North Carolina's North American Slave Narratives. He finds modern material during the two dozen or so talks he gives each year, including at the upcoming Bizarre Bazaar. People sidle up after his lectures, whispering to him the stories they're too afraid to tell anyone else.
With research material taking up too much space in his Williamsburg home and in his life, Taylor is winding down his time with Virginia's ghosts. There are other stories to share. “Monsters of Virginia” awaits his attention: werewolves, Bigfoot, cougars and vampires. Go on the Internet, he advises a skeptical listener: “I've learned a lot of things I didn't know about Virginia wildlife.”
Taylor signs his latest book at the Bizarre Bazaar, Dec. 2 - 5 at the Richmond Raceway Complex. For information, visit thebizarrebazaar.com.