Paramusicology is back after a week off for spring break! In The Pines is the longest story yet, a novella of twenty-five thousand words that I’ve broken down into twelve chapters for the blog. Here’s a brief description:
Murder ballads. Family secrets. A haunted banjo. A ghost who demands…Nikki’s not sure what. But she’s been asked for help, and she can’t walk away, no matter how dangerous it gets.
*rubs hands together with dark glee* Here we go…
I think my banjo is haunted. Can you help?
I stared at the screen and read the words again. A haunted banjo? And asking for my help? Not bad for my little blog’s very first comment that wasn’t spam. It had been left on a post about murder ballads, which seemed appropriate even though I had to laugh. A haunted banjo? Did it play Foggy Mountain Breakdown on its own in the middle of the night?
My quiet search for the paranormal shadows of the music world hadn’t given me much to write about lately. I’d met a couple of witches who played in a band struggling to break into the business, plus a genuine psychic who read palms and tarot cards for celebs. The psychic in particular had become a friend, not blog fodder, so sometimes I posted about other things. The spooky side of music history always made for a good topic that I could ramble on about. A thousand words about the song known variously as Little Sadie, Cocaine Blues, and a few other titles was the latest post, and the one to finally get a comment.
I had no idea how to respond. Was the comment meant to be a joke? Did somebody out there really believe they had a haunted banjo? And if they did possess such a thing, what could I do to help? I didn’t know anything about exorcising unruly spirits from musical instruments. After some thought, I typed a response.
I don’t know if I can help, but I’m very curious. Why do you think your banjo is haunted?
A week later, while Turntable Magazine had me in Chicago covering a band’s tour opening, I got an answer. Sort of.
It talks to me. Sings to me. It won’t stop. It whispers bad things. Sometimes I believe them. I don’t want to. Please, can you help me?
I didn’t know what to make of the vaguely ominous tone. A prank? Someone having a mental health crisis? Any number of mundane explanations were possible. But after fighting off vampires and partying with elves, I had to admit this might be legit, no matter how much it made me want to laugh. I wrote up the first draft of my concert review then went to work on my blog, adding a way for readers to email me.
If you’d like to talk more, feel free to use the contact form in the sidebar. Maybe if you tell me more about what’s happening, I can try to figure out how to help.
Once I got back to LA, I searched social media with the email attached to the comment. Justin Welch had several accounts, with Facebook the one he used most frequently. He was a blandly cute twenty-six-year-old, lived in North Carolina, and posted mostly about three things: his job as a vet tech, his girlfriend, and roots music. Sure enough, there were several photos of him with a vintage banjo. He could play the thing, too. I watched a video of him performing Knoxville Girl three times. That song always gave me goosebumps. Welch’s playing was good, really good, and his voice wasn’t bad, either. A little rough around the edges, but that worked for the old-timey roots stuff.
I scrolled through his timeline and soon found myself wanting to give him a talk about privacy settings. I scrolled back up and checked the dates. He hadn’t posted anything new since before his first comment on my blog. From what I could tell by stalking his socials, he wasn’t the type to pull a prank on a random stranger, or probably anyone else, for that matter. There was no mention or indication of mental health issues. He seemed happy, like he had a good life and he knew it.
Over the next couple of weeks I stayed busy with work, but Welch and his banjo that might or might not be haunted were never far from my thoughts. I fought the urge to check his socials again. Getting all up in the business of a rock star was one thing, but this guy was a private citizen. If he ever got back to me, I would try to help him, but he was going to have to take that step.
A month passed before I heard from him again. The email he sent through the blog contact form was…not great.
This banjo is haunted, and whatever, whoever is haunting it, they know things. They tell me things. He tells me that she lies. That she cheats and laughs at me behind my back. That she doesn’t think I’m good enough for her. Man enough for her. That I can’t provide for her the way she wants. She’ll find another man soon, a man with money and land, a man who can give her fine things. He says this stuff and I don’t want to believe it. That’s not who she is at all. I tell him he’s wrong but he just laughs. He laughs and laughs and it comes out of the banjo like this terrible noise, like it’s out of tune and playing the wrong notes. I can’t describe it.
I think I’m starting to see things.
Up until that last sentence, I was forming questions in my mind, about the instrument’s provenance and history. Planning a call to my friend the psychic, see what she had to say. But, you know, hallucinations? That was the kind of leveling up no one ever wants to do.
My reply was quick and to the point:
Have you tried salting and burning the haunted banjo?
For the next three days, I checked my email approximately every thirty seconds. Finally, a response.
I’ll try. Thanks.
Well, shit. Gonna need more than that, Justin Welch of Whereverthehell, North Carolina.
Let me know what happens. If that doesn’t help, I’ll see what else I can come up with.
Then more waiting. Waiting, as the song goes, is the hardest part. I wasn’t laughing anymore. In fact, I was genuinely worried about the guy, and based on the nature of most murder ballads and this haunted banjo’s message, his girlfriend, too. Girlfriends never fared well in murder ballads.
After too much anxious waiting, I went to see my psychic friend. Evanna Broder was several years older than me, tall and willowy with the look of a golden surfer girl entering middle age with confidence and a bemused smile. Back when she was young and her name was still Ethan, she’d been a competitive surfer, in fact, and she still carried herself with a graceful athleticism. She favored flowing skirts, layered tank tops, and bangles. Lots and lots of bangles that made a lovely music when she moved. Her hair, a flattering mix of blonde and gray, hung halfway down her back.
In addition to reading palms and tarot cards for celebs, she owned a New Age bookstore in Hollywood. I stood in a corner with my phone and scrolled through the latest issue of a magazine that Turntable competed with while Evanna helped a customer.
Once the customer left, Evanna raised her glasses and gave me a hard look. “Your aura needs cleansing.”
“What are you, my mother?”
She pulled a duster from underneath the counter and waved it at me. “Make yourself useful while you tell me what’s wrong.” She hustled me toward the bookshelves and she went to work on the candle and incense display.
I did as ordered without protest. “Do you think objects can be haunted?”
“You mean, like, by the spirits of previous owners?”
“Like a vintage banjo, for example.”
“I don’t see why not. Places can be haunted. We both know that for sure.”
I told her about the comments on my blog and subsequent emails. Also fessed up to the light internet stalking of the commenter. “If this is real and the banjo is whispering evil somethings to this guy about his girlfriend, I mean.”
“She could be in danger.” Evanna put down the handful of candles she’d been clutching then took the duster from me and tossed it aside. “Come on. Let’s check this guy’s Facebook.”
Relief hit me as I followed her to the back office. Stalking strangers was wrong – that’s what I’d been telling myself as I fought the urge to get really nosy. But if Evanna thought it was necessary, then I wasn’t alone in my dubious behavior. “It’s probably nothing.”
“But it might be something.” She sat at her small desk, woke up her laptop and went directly to the social network. “What’s his email?”
I told her as I maneuvered to her side so I could see the screen too. Still nothing new on Justin Welch’s timeline. The doorbell rang, announcing a customer, and Evanna went back up front. I slid into the chair and checked Welch’s other socials. None had recent updates. I sat with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, contemplating a Google search. “Probably nothing,” I murmured. “Or it ended when he set the banjo on fire.” That was my hope, anyway. That, and that I’d get an email from the guy telling me everything was cool and normal again.
Evanna returned. “This is why you’re all out of sorts. What are you going to do about it?”
I sighed. “I don’t know what to do. He asked for my help, but I’m not sure how much license that gives me to dig into his life. Much less show up in his hometown looking for him. What would I say? Hey dude, I’m the anonymous blogger you asked for help. How’s that haunted banjo?” I closed the browser window and gave Evanna back her chair. “Not likely to go over well.”
“You’re worried,” she said.
“Yes. Damn it. Plus it’s just weird, being asked for help like this by a stranger.”
“What, did you think no one would ever read your blog?”
“Honestly, no. I damn sure didn’t think anyone would ever ask for my help.”
She leaned back in her chair and gave me a searching look. “Why does that bother you so much?”
I knew the answer but I didn’t want to say. “Can we go back to cleaning?”
“Have you checked his hometown paper yet? Make sure there are no scary stories in it about him.”
I got my phone out of my bag and pretended to check for messages. “No.” She said nothing, but I could feel the weight of her stare. I gave in and met her gaze. “Okay, look. I don’t feel qualified to handle this.”
“Helping this guy. I don’t know anything about haunted instruments, or how to un-haunt them. I’m a journalist. A writer. I observe, I don’t…”
“Participate,” she finished for me. “You and I both know that’s not true.”
Yeah, okay, she had me there. Still. “What if I try to help and I can’t? Or worse, I screw it up? This is not my wheelhouse.”
“Maybe not, but you wrote about these things. Published that writing online. Somebody was bound to notice eventually. Just so happens it was someone with a problem. I know you want to help, Nikki.”
“Of course I do, I just don’t know how. I never thought I’d be adding paranormal problem solver to my resume.”
“You should let me do a reading for you. It might give you some clarity.”
I thought about it for a moment. I hadn’t let her read my palm or do a tarot spread for me. I understood enough about tarot to know it was as much psychology as mystical, maybe more so, but I was still reluctant to open myself up to it. It might tell me things I wasn’t ready to know yet. “I think I’ll wait a while longer. See if the guy gets back to me.”
“If you change your mind, just say the word.” She stood and made her way to the front of the store, patting my arm as she passed. “Come on, help me clean.”
That night I finally succumbed to my stalking impulse. It didn’t take long to find a headline in Welch’s hometown paper that made my blood run cold.
Local man committed after violent attack on girlfriend
Damn it. The story was light on detail. The girlfriend, not identified, was treated and released, so that was a relief. The fact that Welch was in a psychiatric hospital rather than jail quashed the relief. I checked the date on the article. The day after I’d last heard from him, when I’d advised him to burn the instrument.
So that meant it wasn’t a haunting after all, right? A psychotic break instead. Definitely. Probably. Still, I was left with doubts, so I did more research. I couldn’t let this go until I knew for sure. I went back through Welch’s Facebook and found pictures of him with a brother, who was conveniently tagged so I could trace him, too. Bo Welch owned a landscaping business, which made up the bulk of his social media activity.
I thought about what to say to him for a long time. Here I was about to intrude on what was no doubt a really hard time for this man and his family, and despite being a journalist I wasn’t insensitive to that. But I had to make sure. So I sent the brother a private message and hoped I wasn’t overstepping too much.
A response was waiting for me in the morning.
Justin put that banjo in my fire pit and set it on fire. We watched it burn. Then a few hours later it was back, just like before we burned it. Can you help my brother?
I didn’t know the answer to that, but I booked a flight to North Carolina anyway.