Humans do love their mysteries — preferring them, in some contexts, to facts. This is something of a mystery, itself: while I expect many of us, if presented with the opportunity, would pay big bucks to learn the true identity of, say, Jack the Ripper, there are others — there are doubtless parts of our own selves — that like the fact that the facts are … unknown.
I recently posted about my inauguration into the country blues via the recordings of Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938). Surely part of Johnson’s appeal, at least at the time, was that so little was known about him … and the legend that he’d sold his soul to the devil at a lonely crossroads didn’t hurt, either. When I started listening to Johnson’s recordings, there were no known photos of the man — or so it was said (according to Wikipedia, this impression lasted into the 1980s, even though three photographs of Johnson had surfaced in the 1970s).
I remember seeing the above photograph and being struck by the (to me) preternatural length of Johnson’s fingers on the fretboard. Somehow the photo managed to not crumple the mystery, at least for me. Maybe the devil lengthened Johnson’s fingers. Snort.
A more recent example would be ‘outsider musician’ Jandek (or, more properly ‘the representative from Corwood’). Was ‘Jandek’ a person? was ‘Jandek’ the person who was in many of the photographs on the covers of Corwood recordings? and was something wrong with him, that he kept releasing (after a fashion) these rackety, not-quite-tonal pieces of music? These questions were not, not really, answered when someone who looked like the skinny guy on many of the album covers started playing live concerts in late 2004.
Were we … disappointed that ‘Jandek’ had become flesh?
And now I must take a turn for the non-human: I am a bit of a tornado freak — no, wait, let me explain. It isn’t that I look forward to gloating as loads of folks and their worldly possessions are destroyed by catastrophic storms … it’s that I am fascinated, transfixed even, by the storms themselves.
I have never seen a tornado. When I was 5 years old we drove through “the tail end of a tornado” near Kadoka, South Dakota (I looked it up on a now-partly-defunct “tornado history database” website and it was at best an EF1, but my probably-enhanced memories of that day include bales of hay flying through the air and a semi being blown over on its side) but I don’t remember seeing the funnel, and I lived through the April 3, 1974 “Super Outbreak” in Cincinnati, OH but, hey, we were all huddled in the basement and none of the tornadoes came close to my part of town.
Because I am a tornado aficionado, I’ve repeatedly read about the most destructive single tornado in American history: the 1925 “Tri-State Tornado” that killed almost 700 people and was on the ground (if it was a single tornado, which is debatable — but not a debate that can ever be settled) for an astonishing 219 miles.
Famous as it is, however, if you do an Internet search on this storm, you will not find certified pictures of it. You’ll find lots of photographs of the aftermath, but none of the storm itself. Accounts often refer to the obscured nature of the tornado (“rain-wrapped” is a term that gets thrown around a lot) — people didn’t see the tornado until it was basically on top of them. You could use the descriptions of eyewitnesses and page through photographs of other tornadoes and conclude “well, it must have looked something like this,” but …
Some time ago I found this photograph on a website with a caption that claimed it was one of the few known photographs of the Tri-State Tornado:
This is certainly a creepily-blurry image, but … I just don’t know. It almost looks more like a very very bad fire than a tornado to me … and what is its provenance? I have never been able to establish any kind of, well, anything for this photograph. It doesn’t really match the “obscured, hard-to-see” storm of many of the contemporary descriptions.
But the point I want to make is that I have no words, currently, for the strange amplification of emotions I feel concerning this storm, caused by the sheer lack of images … do I want photographs to be found? does the lack of images add to the horror of the story? The latter question interests me, of course, because of the still-present Glenn who from a very young age wanted to be a writer of “horror” fiction. Is it true that horrors kept “offstage” are scarier because of their absence? Is it true that nothing a writer could fill in the gaps with could come up to the level of the things that start to stir in the basement of your mind?
Wait … what was that sound?