exploring the paranormal in the most normal of places: the Midwest
As the rest of my family peered out the minivan windows trying to spot bison, elk, and prairie dogs during a late-summer trip out West, my mind and imagination drifted closer to home as I delved into the first chapter of Eau Claire writer B.J. Hollars’ latest book, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country. True to its title, the volume features tales of regional weirdness, from the Hodag of Wisconsin’s northwoods to an infamous Minnesota UFO case. Hollars, an associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire and a prolific author, combines his skills as a folklorist, a scholar, and a self-deprecating memoirist to explore nine “Case Files,” each of which could easily provide fodder for an X-Files episode or two.
“A lot of these folks who are interested in this subject in many ways could serve as an example to the larger population about how to explore the facts with an eye toward wonder while never leaving skepticism behind.” – B.J. Hollars, author of Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country
Case File No. 1, for instance, is about a creature even more incredible than the enormous bison and grizzly bears of Yellowstone: namely the Beast of Bray Road, a hairy humanoid who has been spotted around Walworth County, Wisconsin, since the 1930s. Is the beast a bipedal dog? A werewolf? A creature from another dimension? Or simply a product of late-night drivers’ overactive imaginations? With this and other case files, Hollars avoids drawing conclusions: He’s less interested in identifying the objective “truth” behind these tales than in learning what they can teach us about how we perceive the world – particularly when the world challenges our prior beliefs.
While Midwest Strange is populated by pancake-cooking aliens and gargantuan turtles, the real stars are the human characters who labor to explore, promote, or exploit such oddities – from the UFO enthusiast who’s devoted years to researching a 1968 incident at an Air Force base in North Dakota to a former mayor who keeps Rhinelander's beloved Hodag legend alive.
“We have this idea that if you believe in strange phenomena, you must be wearing a tinfoil cap,” Hollars said in an interview. “But in reality, most everyone I talked to were very skeptical and scientific and curious and open-minded, and I think those are all traits that can extend well beyond the subject of strange phenomena.” In an era when it can be hard to discern reality from “fake news,” curiosity and skepticism can both be useful tools when we watch the nightly news or scroll through our Facebook feeds. As Hollars noted, “A lot of these folks who are interested in this subject in many ways could serve as an example to the larger population about how to explore the facts with an eye toward wonder while never leaving skepticism behind.”
Like many of us, Hollars developed a fascination with the strange as a youngster, specifically when he discovered books about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster in his hometown library’s nonfiction section. “That was just baffling to me, because prior to that point my understanding of monsters was mostly relegated to Scooby-Doo episodes, so the idea that adults were taking these things seriously was just astonishing and breathtaking and really helped me see … the wider and stranger world that might be there.”
“Wider and stranger” could also be a description of Hollars’ output: He’s authored books on subjects ranging from the Civil Rights movement to bird-watching as well as collections of short stories, essays, and even a nonfiction/fiction hybrid. From hearing Hollars talk about Midwestern Strange, however, it’s clear that the region and its potentially paranormal oddities bring him a particular joy. “I grew up watching the X-Files, and my favorite episodes sort of struck a similar tone, they had their scary moments, but they were also chuckling somewhere by episode’s end,” he said.
By the end of his latest book, expect to look at the world around you with a little more wonder – whether or not you’re a skeptic or a true believer. “I think I left this project more curious and unsure than when I started,” Hollars said. “By the book’s final page, I had more questions than answers, but my approach to thinking about these subjects had grown quite a bit.”
Midwestern Strange is available at numerous online and brick-and-mortar retailers, including The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Hollars will read from the book at 7pm Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the Volume One Gallery inside The Local Store. As part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, Hollars will also present “Things that Go Bump When You Write: On Monsters, Martians, and the Search for the Truth in the Strange,” at 5:30pm Friday, Oct. 25, at Forage inside Banbury Place. The latter event will include a fall buffet and a cash bar. Space is limited to 80 people, and tickets are $35. Learn more at cvbookfest.org.