The strange stories of Canada’s west coast

I’ve been sharing a series of lectures that I wrote for a Canadian folklore in literature and art class that I used to teach. Here is a lecture I wrote on one of my favorite authors, British Columbia’s Dick Hammond, who was a master of the short story. Please feel free to edit and use this lecture in any class.

Shawn Smallman

Dick Hammond


Dick Hammond

House by the Talking Falls



  • Canadian author Dick Hammond wrote of the B.C. coast in three volumes, in which he explored the remote communities that dotted Canada’s Pacific edge. 
  • He was born in 1929 and spent his entire life on the part of the Pacific Coast that is called the “Sunshine Coast,” because it is in the rain shadow of Vancouver island
  • He was self-educated, but extremely well-read
  • He used to collect rare operatic recordings (
  • He worked as a salvage logger, a form of life that is romanticized in Canada
  • There even used to be a tv series about it called Beachcombers, which was very popular when I was growing up in the 1970s
  • He married a teacher in 1970
  • Jo Hammond was herself an author, who wrote a memoir of her life: Edge of the Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager 
  • she was quite adventurous and had traveled through the Panama canal on a freighter to come to the West Coast
  • she later worked as a salvage logger herself
  • they had two children, Patricia and Eric
  • Hammond died in 2008, in Sechelt Inlet on the coast
  • His stories often described the lives of the working class, and the strength and craftsmanship that they displayed.
  • His stories often do not have any supernatural characteristics, but focus upon special skills
  • In one story, a black smith is the only person who can repair a broken drill, which would take a week or more to obtain from Vancouver, which would be disastrous for the logging group
  • In another, one man is the only person who knows how to run a particular piece of equipment, and makes a visiting engineer look foolish
  • Some of the skills that he celebrates are quite mundane
  • A tinker who repairs broken pots is honored in one story
  • No skill is too small for Dick Hammond to celebrate it
  • But above all else, he celebrated the skills of the logger
  • Hammond work for years as a small hand logger
  • These men –and they were almost always men, despite his wife’s profession- would travel the coast in their boats looking for isolated stands of timber along the coast on public lands
  • They would work them in a small group, and then take the logs out to sell
  • It was a very hard way to make a life, that required someone who was really self-sufficient
  • That person had to know how to log, how to work machinery, how to run a boat in sometimes treacherous waters
  • These are the skills that Hammond celebrated
  • Very much books to celebrate the working class

The Past

  • But they also evoked a coast haunted by its past, from the recent settlers to the deep history of B.C.’s Indigenous peoples.
  • There is a post by Mackie on a Northwest Archaeology blog that makes a very good case that aspects of indigenous mythology in Haida Gwaii regarding Raven retain memories of the landscape and environment from 12,000 years ago:
  • The indigenous peoples of Canada have a history in the region that stretches so far back that their earliest campsites are likely buried deep under the Pacific Ocean, because of rising water levels
  • but traces -including such ephemera as footprints- can be found on some islands:
  • The BC coast was settled by Europeans in the mid to late nineteenth century
  • Hammond romanticizes this period in some ways, and the strength and independence of the earlier settlers
  • But he is also aware of the negative aspects of this period
  • He talked about the social isolation, particularly for the women who stayed at home, and the family strains that this created, including within his own family
  • The main character in his stories is his father, and they are told as if they were stories that he heard from his father
  • His father had died in 1975, and like his son, spent much of his life as a logger who traveled the coast by boat
  • Other family members are minor characters, such as his uncle, who was gassed while a soldier in World War One and never truly recovered
  • These are strong people
  • Men –and it’s a very male look at the past- were stronger, braver, and less likely to complain than in the past
  • But this approach also gives an air of verisimilitude, an aspect of reality to these stories
  • At times it appears hard to tell- are these stories complete fiction or does he really believe the stories that he is recounting? 
  • The reader is left wondering if the narrator is playing a character, and is he just really good at never breaking character
  • Or are these supposed to be true oral traditions, the memory of one coastal family?
  • Certainly there are many characteristics of oral tales in these stories
  • One can imagine them being told and retold around a family table over the years
  • In one case Hammond said that his publisher insisted on publishing these works as fiction, but they were all true
  • Indeed, he said that his books were all true, and faithfully recorded his fathers’ tales
  • So perhaps he did views these stories as a record of the settlers’ experience of the coast
  • But Hammond is also very aware that the European history on this coast is a short one
  • This presents a problem, because his work is haunted by the past
  • In one of his less effective stories he tells the story of his father and his friend exploring caves on the coast, and finding some old candles that they learned had been left by the Spanish
  • The story doesn’t work, because it is so awkward to explain how the candles came to be there, or how the men came to learn that they had been left by Spanish explorers
  • At one point, Hammond said that he had the “soul of an antiquary.”
  • To people who have read M.R. James, perhaps the best known author of ghost stories in the English language, it was very clear that Hammond was evoking M.R. James
  • But unlike Hammond there were no ancient mansions, ruined churches, Saxon crowns, or other European aspects of the past to engage with
  • This meant that Hammond had to engage with the Indigenous history of the coast

Native Peoples

  • The BC coast was incredibly culturally rich
  • The Northwest culture area was characterized by the diversity of its peoples
  • An area in which populations were divided by mountains and waters
  • Like some other areas –like Oaxaca in Mexico- it created an incredible wealth of peoples and languages in a space not much larger than a European country
  • We’ve already discussed one of these peoples, the Haisla, in Monkey Beach.
  • But there are many more, perhaps a little like the Balkans or the Caucus region in Europe
  • What was also distinctive about these cultures was their wealth
  • These were stable populations, not true hunter-gatherers, who depended on the wealth of the ocean, in particular the great salmon runs
  • This supported a settled population that lived in great long houses, and celebrated its elites with beautiful totem poles
  • These totem poles are now an iconic image of British Columbia
  • Only one aspect of the region’s cultural richness
  • This was the last major area of North America to be settled by people of European ancestry
  • Much of this happened in the space of the 30 years after 1870, a period when native populations went into a catastrophic decline, in large part because of smallpox
  • The Indigenous past was very close
  • You could still see the ruined villages along the coast
  • A famous Canadian painter, Emily Carr, made a career out of painting the coast, and her most popular and iconic paintings were of the ruined totem poles
  • There was no ignoring this reality
  • If Hammond was to truly evoke a native past, he was going to have to engage with the experience of Indigenous peoples
  • This meant that he was going to need a guide


  • He found this figure in a friend of his father’s, a man named Charlie
  • Hammond said very little about Charlie’s background, except that his people had largely disappeared
  • This was both plausible –given the terrible epidemics on the coast- and convenient, because he did not need to deal in a deep way with the specific beliefs and characteristics of this people
  • Charlie himself was a reflective figure
  • With Hal and his brother (the author’s father and uncle) he always spoke in a broken English that matched the boy’s expectations of how a Native would speak
  • But then Hal heard him speaking to his father (the narrator’s grand-father) in flawless English, and realized that the man was speaking this way to humor the boys
  • In this cycle of three stories, Charlie would be a good friend to Hammond’s father 
  • In these stories, Charlie would sometimes serve as a guide, although not always a perfect one

Generic Indigenous Traditions

  • This brings me to another characteristic of these tales
  • Hammond often refers to an Indigenous past
  • But it seems to me that it is a generic past
  • He doesn’t demonstrate any genuinely deep knowledge of Northwest myths, languages or native peoples
  • BC has a rich mythic tradition that he could have drawn on
  • But this is not there
  • He may have actually had a deep knowledge, but it is not demonstrated in these short stories
  • Even with Charlie, his specific people are never named, nor are his language
  • In this sense, the native past is sometimes generic
  • They are Indigenous characters drawn by someone who perhaps had a limited knowledge of Indigenous peoples, even though they were his friends
  • But they create a sense of a deeper past, in which different stories can take place
  • Many of the ensuing stories dealt with the supernatural

The Bad Space:

  • The otherworldly is a strong theme in Hammond’s book Haunted Waters
  • In all these cases, there is a mysterious Indigenous past that erupts into the present, and threatens to overwhelm the existing order
  • In one story, Hal’s father is towing the canoes of his Indigenous friends
  • It is summer, and they are traveling north along the coast to get to one of their favorite fishing and berry picking areas
  • They much prefer to be towed rather than having to paddle the entire distance
  • Hal takes them to this space and leave them
  • His thus very surprised a couple of weeks later when he sees them out on the waters paddling south
  • Of course, he comes over with this boat and offers to tow them, an offer that was graciously accepted
  • He also started to tease them about why they might have left this space so quickly, but found that his humor was not appreciated
  • He then asked one of the Native peoples, who was his friend, outright why they had left the space
  • The man was quiet for a long time, and finally told Hal that he didn’t want to say, because Hal wouldn’t understand
  • It’s at this point that the reader realizes the depth of the gulf between Hammond’s father and his native friend, despite their friendship
  • Hammond did not ask further
  • But after he dropped the Indigenous peoples off at their home village he went back north to their camp
  • Anchored his boat, took his rifle, and walked into the deserted village and woods
  • He saw nothing- except an absence
  • As he went into the forest there were no birds singing and no squirrels in the trees
  • He walked along the bank of a creek and there were no animal tracks on the bank
  • There was only a sense of being watched
  • Hammond left- there was no powerful climax
  • The story left him uneasy
  • The sense that he was a stranger in a place that did not play by his rules
  • This same sensation came often in his stories

Freud and the Uncanny

  • Freud talked about the uncanny, the unheimlich, as being at the core of horror
  • In particular, he spoke about the sense of being in your home, but it is not familiar as it should be
  • This particular tension as at the core of the horror in Hammond’s stories 
  • And the underlying cause of this tension is that you have settlers living in a home that actually belongs to others
  • My thoughts in this have been greatly shaped by Margot Northey’s work on the Canadian Gothic, in a book called the Haunted Wilderness:
  • Northey, M. (2020). The haunted wilderness. University of Toronto Press.
  • Many of Hammond’s stories have this sense of a space that has erupted into this world from another one
  • Or they tell a story that shows settlers relying on Indigenous information to survive in this landscape

The Deer that wasn’t a Deer

  • You can see this in the story “The Deer that Was not a Deer.”
  • it works well as a story for kids, as I know from experience
  • In the tale Hal and his friend Shorty go hunting
  • They anchor the boat in a remote inlet and start inland
  • There is a slow steady snow, which means that it will be easy to track animals
  • Right at the start, they witness a deer with the finest set of antlers any of them have ever seen
  • A great trophy
  • Shorty is a very enthusiastic hunter, and eager to get going no matter what the weather conditions
  • They follow the deer: tracks just stop
  • They realize that the deer has been walking backward in its own footsteps
  • Behavior very much unlike any deer that they have known
  • Circle back- find where the deer left the trail
  • Shorty seems to be losing his enthusiasm
  • Hal didn’t know why
  • The trail disappears twice
  • First time: deer jumping from rock to log
  • Second, it had jumped over a bush
  • Shorty says that he is not going any further
  • Confrontation between the two men
  • Hal asks him what is wrong with him
  • Shorty asks him if he has ever heard of the Deer that Isn’t a Deer
  • Describes this Indigenous tradition
  • “I’m surprised that you haven’t heard of it Hal”
  • points out that the deer could have gotten away if it had just run away
  • it’s moving slow enough not to lose them, and doing tricks just well enough to keep him following the deer
  • Hal tells him to go back to the boat
  • Shorty follows him
  • Loyalty a key value in these stories
  • Hal has a very difficult time tracking the deer
  • Deer goes up creek and swims through pool
  • Hal has an epiphany, in which he sees his bones moldering under some leaves
  • he decides that Shorty was right
  • The two men go home
  • Through listening to Indigenous traditions, Hal has been able to escape this danger and live to return home
  • What’s interesting is that Indigenous guides were not infallible in these stories
  • Even they were losing their connection to the land
  • Some problems were so ancient it was hard even for local Indigenous peoples to know what to do

The Monster

  • One can see this in one story in which Hal went fishing with his guide Charlie
  • Wanted to catch halibut, a large bottom fish
  • Charlie took him to a cliff covered in pictographs, rock art
  • Decided that it meant that this was a good place to fish
  • Hooked something very large
  • Decided that he had interpreted the rock art wrong
  • It had been a warning not to fish here
  • Charlie had Hal flee
  • He could not truly see what came out of the water
  • Charlie would not tell him
  • This is a common theme in these stories 
  • Hal is friends with the Indigenous peoples
  • The narrator has a strong sympathy with their experience
  • One story tells how native peoples were being exploited by a corrupt logger, and how they got revenge
  • At the same time, Hal is clearly not part of their world

The Skull

  • There is also a tension between the settlers and the Indigenous peoples that comes through in these stories
  • One can see this in one short story called the skull
  • One common thing for people to do in the early twentieth century was to visit abandoned indigenous villages
  • May have thought that these people had disappeared
  • This was not the case
  • As populations collapsed from smallpox, tuberculosis and other diseases, villages consolidated
  • A process that took place elsewhere in the Americas as people suffered from Old World diseases
  • These villages were not forgotten
  • Still used for ritual purposes and still held sacred relics, in particular totem poles
  • But in order to have a functioning village, you need a certain density of population
  • People moved to other villages, but tried to keep their connection to their original homes
  • But it was very common for sailors and tourists to visit these sites
  • Conduct what the viewed as amateur anthropology or archaeology by taking away relics
  • It’s now painful to read early traveler’s accounts from the BC coast
  • The classic one is The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchett
  • Blanchet, M. W. (2016). The curve of time. Pickle Partners Publishing.
  • Wylie’s background and concept of the book
  • Her romantic depiction of the her visit to an Indigenous village
  • Crossed fence to do so
  • She envisioned herself speaking with the dead
  • Pulled our of her reverie by her son, who had found a copper bracelet, which she took
  • She noted that it had been on the ground underneath a burial tree
  • M. Wylie Blanchet was only one of many such people doing this
  • Hammond has a story that dealt with this
  • Father has taken a skull, which he plays in a drawer on his boat
  • He hears it clattering around the boat while he is up steering the boat
  • The skull was not where he left it
  • Tries repeatedly to put it back in the drawer
  • Realizes that the skull will not stay there
  • Throws it into the water
  • Hammond is troubled by the habits of the settlers
  • Shows how their disrespect for Indigenous rights undermines the social order
  • Don’t want to exaggerate Hammond’s position
  • He never touches on more important topics such as land rights issues
  • To him it seems inevitable that new people have moved into these lands as the earlier inhabitants moved away
  • But he is concerned that Indigenous rights be respected
  • Even so, his stories still capture the perspective of someone who is of the settler culture, and has the privileges that come from this.

The Serpent’s Lair

  • At the same time, not all of Hammond’s stories focus on the Indigenous past
  • There is a tension in his stories between the regions Indigenous and European heritage
  • One can see this with stories on his favorite theme: the house that shouldn’t be there
  • This is a very powerful theme in folklore, particular in Japan
  • There is even a particular word in Japanese for these unexpected houses, mayoi-ga (Yanagita, K. The legends of Tono, 39).
  • This is the term for a strange house that one finds when one loses one’s way.
  • The greatest Japanese folklorist was Kunio Yanagita, who did work recording peasant legends in the rural community of Tono
  • In some respects he was the Japanese equivalent of the Brothers Grimm in Germany
  • He recorded many stories of the mayoi-ga
  • Their equivalent appears twice in Hammond’s oevre
  • These stories work because of the contrast between the home as a place of safety in the wilderness, and the sense that something is wrong with these houses
  • I read this as a larger metaphor for the position that settlers found themselves in throughout the BC coast
  • Not always immediately obvious in the stories
  • For example, Hammond has one story called “the Serpent’s Lair”
  • In the story, Dick Hammond’s father was exploring remote valley; deer antlers covering floor of the forest
  • Sees house and approaches
  • Everything about the house is unusual: no garden, chicken coop, road
  • Everything decaying
  • there is an axe resting against building: handle crumbles
  • The man has to be careful when he walks on the porch
  • Strange door: Gorgon’s face
  • the narrator’s father is terrified of snakes
  • But what was more important was that this was an iconic image from ancient Greece
  • A clear claim to whose ghosts haunt this place
  • The door handle with the serpent’s face and poison trap
  • He opens it with a stick
  • In this case, it is not Indigenous knowledge but his own savvy that saves his father
  • But this knowledge does not allow him to explore the house
  • Utter terror: the father flees without remembering what he had seen
  • The story is unsatisfying
  • This is in fact how Hammond begins his narration, by saying that his father did not like to tell the tale
  • It was unsatisfying, perhaps, because we don’t know what Hammond’s father had seen on that island
  • More than that, why should this house be there with this connection to ancient Greece?
  • It seems strange
  • An imposition on the landscape
  • It fails because it cannot juxtapose the Indigenous history of the region with that of the settlers’ culture, particularly their ancient cultural legacies
  • It fails to create a true sense of the uncanny for this reason
  • I think that Hammond knew this, which explains the introduction to the story
  • This story has received much less attention than his other work, “The House by the Talking Falls,” which also deals with a house that shouldn’t be there or mayoi-ga
  • I am not the first to note that in some of these stories there is the clear influence of M.R. James, in that the past overwhelms the present. 
  • In some of Hammond’s other stories, the past is haunting the present, but it is out of place because of its European referents
  • Hammond’s work is more effective when he returns to Freud’s idea of the uncanny, in  story story entirely grounded on an Indigenous mythic vision of the world
  • One can get a sense of the richness of this world on the third floor of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria
  • An overwhelming amount of Indigenous art in this vast space, which is almost as overwhelming as the Louvre
  • Then there is a small side room, darkened, and filled with the masks that represent the Indigenous spirits
  • In this smaller room, to me a more intimate space, a voice from Indigenous elders gives the names of the masks
  • Evokes the rich world of the spirits in BC cultural history

The House by the Talking Falls

  • The indigenous background (whether real or invented) is perhaps strongest in “The House by the Talking Falls,” which may be Hammond’s most famous tale. 
  • Much as in “the Serpent’s Lair” the story centers upon a house that should not exist. 
  • Many early settlers were not successful along the coast
  • It was not unusual to see an abandoned house, and to wonder who had lived there
  • But the houses in Hammond’s tales had a different quality
  • They were much stranger than simply an abandoned house
  • I wonder if M. Wylie Blanchet’s classic book, The Curve of Time influenced this book, as she briefly described the voices that emerge from coastal waterfalls. 
  • In this case, the house represents the emergence of a mythical Indigenous world into the present, before the story comes to its shattering conclusion.


  • I am not going to tell the story of here
  • I cannot do it justice
  • some things are better experienced than studied
  • What is important is that Hammond’s entire story is based around the contradiction between homey details and the uncanny
  • The main character would swing emotionally from feeling the warmth of a cat in a space, which made the kitchen cozy, to a sense of the strange and menacing
  • At the core is the idea that the house should not exist
  • The theme of Indigenous myth flows throughout the entire story, sometimes in subtle ways that aren’t immediately apparent
  • Again, it is not clear that there is any cultural basis to this myth, which raises issues of appropriation and authenticity
  • But it’s very effective as a narrative device
  • If you read the story I want you to think about the female character that Hammond’s father meets in the story
  • Who is she and what does she represent?
  • Who is the house haunted by in this story?
  • And is it fair to say that this story is both BC gothic –not unlike Monkey Beach- and a ghost story?
  • I would argue that –as in many of M.R. James’ stories- this is a narrative about the past overwhelming the present.
  • The contradiction between BC’s Indigenous past, and the settler culture that dominates it now.
  • I want to finish this lecture by breaking you into small groups to discuss this work


  • Break students into small groups to discuss the reading for ten minutes
  • Then have then do a ten minute freewrite about the chapter and their experience of it

Discussion: The House by the Talking Falls

How does Hammond try to create an atmosphere of the uncanny in this tale?

In what ways does the regions Indigenous heritage come into this story?

Why do you think the idea of the house that shouldn’t exist might be a recurring motif in Hammond’s work?

What image of Hammond’s father emerges from this work? How would you describe his personality?

Who is the house haunted by in this tale?

How would you describe the young woman that the narrator’s father meets in this tale?

What kind of a character is she? 

Is she sane?

How would you describe her family members? Are they real? What are they?

One question I have, and I don’t know the answer to– here is a waterfall out of which voices emerge? What does that represent? Is it just there to add atmosphere? Or was there a larger point to it?

In many of M.R. James stories the core of the narrative is about the idea of the past overwhelming the present. Is it fair to say that this is also core to this story? Why?

Is this is a Gothic story? Or is it better thought of as a ghost story?

What works for you in the story? What are its strengths?

What are the weaknesses of the story?

Why do you think that Hammond had the house disappear at the end of the story?

In the end, did the story work for you?


If you are interested in Canadian folklore, as well as Indigenous religion and history, please see my own work:

Smallman, S. (2015). Dangerous spirits: The windigo in myth and history. Heritage House Publishing Co.

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