mystery

The Dyatlov Pass incident

From Wikipedia Commons: “A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot. Photo taken by soviet authorities at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident and annexed to the legal inquest that investigated the deaths.”  Public domain in Wikipedia Commons

As someone who loves folklore and mystery, every Halloween season I try to find some global mysteries to discuss. Earlier on the blog I did a book review of Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. In 1959 a large group of hikers disappeared in a remote and mountainous part of the Soviet Union. It was only when the first bodies began to appear, however, that the mystery began to acquire broader attention. Something appeared to have made them flee out of their tent in the dead of night while only partly dressed, something that was suicide in the depths of the Russian winter. Everyone in that tent was an experienced hiker and camper. What could have scared them so badly? Or was there a killer on the mountain that night, from whom they fled in terror? Given that this event took place in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, there were a plethora of conspiracy theories about secret Soviet experiments, strange radiation injuries,  and military guards. But what can we learn about this event in hindsight?

Lucy Ash has a wonderful article on the event, published on the BBC news website, for which she went to the location of the disaster, and interviewed key people. If you’re looking for a strange story to read, preferably while curled up near a fire on Halloween, this might be a good choice. Or check out my own book, Dangerous Spirits, which you can find here on Apple books.

Shawn Smallman

From Wikipedia: The Mikhajlov Cemetry in Yekaterinburg. The tomb of the group who had died in mysterious circumstances in the northern Ural Mountains. Photo by Дмитрий Никишин / Public domain

Iran, history and War

Last Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman were struck by explosions. The crews of both ships were quickly evacuated, and there was no loss of life onboard. The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly announced that Iran was responsible for these strikes. The U.S. government released military footage that it said showed an Iranian ship removing a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers. There had been an attack on four other tankers within the last month. The U.S. alleged that Iran was carrying out these assaults because of U.S. pressure regarding the nuclear deal. …

Wylding Hall, a book review for Halloween

The Rotunda, Stowe Landscape Gardens. Photo by Philip Halling. Creative Commons license, Wikipedia

Every year I cover an appropriate international mystery for Halloween. For example, last year I talked about ghosts of Hong Kong and Macau. Earlier this month I talked about the ghost ship the Baltimore, which was found with only a single survivor, a woman, who soon vanished from Nova Scotia and was never seen again. This year I want to review a novel, Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand. The novel is a ghost story set in a remote English country house in the 1960s. The characters are primarily members of an English folk band, who came of age in the era of Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when the folk rock movement was a pop culture force in Great Britain. Even though the pop culture of this period will be familiar to most Western readers, the specifically British context will be alien to most Americans and Canadians. The story begins after a terrible tragedy, which leads the band manager to isolate the band in an old country-house, not only to heal the group’s members but also to create a new album.

The work is inspired by the genre of pop music band histories that focus on juxtaposing the differing voices of band members. Hand, an American, has an amazing ear for dialogue. I think that dialogue is always tricky for a writer, as the smallest error in tone or wording can be jarring. At the same time, it is perhaps the best tool for characterization, and this is how Hand employs it. Dialogue propels the novel, so that the reader is soon swept into the jealousies, loves, and secrets of a British band. All ghost stories are dominated by the past. In Hand’s novel, however, the past at times seems distant and undefined. In truth the book is dominated by the 1960s in one summer in the life of a band. It differs from the stories of M.R. James and many other English authors of ghost stories because the past doesn’t seem to overwhelm the present. Even though the past intrudes, this novel is truly the story of the band itself. …

Northern Supernatural

Skogtroll/Forest Troll. Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain], 1906, via Wikimedia Commons
Every Halloween I do a post on global folklore or an international mystery, from a haunted building in Hong Kong, to the mystery of the ghost ship Baltimore. This year I’m doing some additional posts on this theme, because I want to share a wonderful BBC podcast, the Supernatural North. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough travels to Norway to look at how the weird in the North has haunted the European imagination. Along the way, she explores everything from a Sami shamanic drum made by a Californian (with an image of a surfer) to the witch trials of 18th century Finmark. What is impressive about the story she tells is how stories from this area with a relatively low population have shaped modern fantasy literature from the trolls in the Lord of the Rings to the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones. But these stories live on not only in literature but also popular memory. One Norwegian community is haunted by the history of the tragic 17th century witch trials in Finmark. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough described an unsettling visit to a public art work built to commemorate those who were burned at the stake. You have to admire the work of someone who has been knighted with a walrus penis bone, and who is on the trail of a Norse Arctic explorer.(1)

After listening to the podcast, you might wish to watch the 2010 movie Troll Hunter, which the podcast suggests built carefully upon actual traditions. It’s also very funny, and doesn’t have too much gore, despite some twists. There’s nothing worse (spoiler alert) than a rabid troll. …

The Mystery Woman of the Baltimore

Captain’s quarters of an 18th century sailing vessel, such as that in which the mystery woman was found. Photo by Audrey Smallman, 2018.

 

Every Halloween I discuss an international mystery, or an aspect of folklore such as the ghost stories of southeastern China. This year will be different, because I am going to do three posts dealing with mysteries or the supernatural. With this post, I want to discuss the strange ship the Baltimore, a mystery with threads that reach from Ireland to Canada, and from the United States to Barbados. In his book, Maritime Mysteries: Haunting Tales of Atlantic Canada, Roland H. Sherwood tells the story (pp. 24-29) of how the ship mysteriously appeared in Chebogue, Nova Scotia. The local people wondered where the brigantine had come from, and why no people were seen on deck, even though someone had anchored the vessel. They sent ships, and people called out to those aboard, but no answer came. When local men boarded the ship on December 5, 1735 they saw signs of a struggle, including blood splattered all over the deck. There must have been a terrible battle aboard the ship. But of the crew there was not a trace. Seemingly, every single crew member had vanished. And everything valuable had been stripped from the ship. Then they heard the moaning within the cabin. They tried to open the door, but it had been barricaded shut. On that blood-soaked ship, they must have feared what they would find inside. When they burst through the door they found a woman on the floor, the only survivor. She said that her name was Susannah Buckler. Could she tell them what had happened to the ship’s crew? …

Bioterrorism and Cocaine

“A beautiful landscape of Mendoza City’s park seen from the height of the Gómez building.” By Itsmemarttin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mat Youkee has a fascinating article, “Who Killed the Nazi Scientist trying to Wipe out Cocaine,” on the online site Ozy. The piece tells the story of Heinz Brücher, who had served as a second lieutenant in the German military (S.S.) during World War Two. A biologist, Brücher had stolen a Ukrainian seed-bank on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Later in the war, he disobeyed orders to destroy these seeds, and fled the Reich with them. As with other German military figures at the war’s end, he fled to Argentina, as part of an evacuation which has become a theme in popular culture from film to conspiracy theories. He did not stay in Argentina only, however, but also taught as a faculty member everywhere from Venezuela to Paraguay. Later in life, though, he wound up living in a farm house in Mendoza, Argentina, where he seems to have hatched an incredible plot: to destroy the coca plant that is the basis for the cocaine trade.

The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in the Andes. One can see ancient indigenous sculptures in which the cheek of one figure is extended, because the person is chewing coca. The leaf figures in ritual and religion, but is also a rich source of nutrition.Throughout Latin America coca tea is often used as an infusion because it is supposed to have medicinal properties. The leaf itself is vastly different from the processed drug known as cocaine. In 1898 a German chemist, Richard Martin Willstätter, created cocaine, which had become one of the most used drugs in the world. By the 1970s and 80s, cocaine was the basis for the cartels of Colombia. At the same time, there were allegations that the U.S. intelligence services were themselves involved in the cocaine trade in order to fund the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Supernatural China and the Ghost House

A highrise in Macau, seen through the ruined 17th century Church of St. Paul. Photo by Shawn Smallman.

Every Halloween I write a blog post about the supernatural or the mysterious, from a book review regarding a Russian mystery, to a description of the best podcasts to make you afraid.  Last summer I did fieldwork on public policy and infectious disease in southeastern China, during which I traveled to Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen. I was delighted by the ancient temples in Hong Kong, and fascinated by the enduring strength of traditional religion in the region. In fact, I was very disappointed to find that I was leaving Hong Kong one day before the “Festival of Hungry Ghosts” began on August 25th. But I was surprised to find that even urban and energetic Shenzhen is haunted by its past. This is surprising since the city has a population of perhaps 12 million people today, while it had a population of at most 30,000 in 1979. When I visited the Shenzhen Museum (which is both free and excellent, if you are interested in urban development) they had pictures of neighborhoods in the 1980s that were little more than fields. These pictures were juxtaposed with photos of Shenzhen currently, where developers compete to build the highest skyscraper. There can have been few places where development has so quickly erased the past. The city is filled with sweeping avenues, towering sky-scrapers, world-class architecture and graceful parks. It was painful to contrast the new public works in Shenzhen with the sometimes antiquated state of subways, bridges and roads in the United States. Yet even here, the city is haunted by disturbing memories. …

Cracking the North Korea Puzzle

I want to thank Dr. Mel Gurtov for the following guest post:

Donald Trump inherits an intractable problem in Asia: North Korea’s determination to modernize its weapons arsenal and, absent a better deal from the United States, continue working toward an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. The North’s latest missile test—one with intermediate range of perhaps 2,000 miles—should be understood in the context of weapons modernization. According to the US Pentagon, the test represented progress for North Korea in several respects: it was a ground-based launch rather than a submarine launch; it used solid fuel technology; and it flew farther than other IRBM tests, the four most recent ones having all failed at launching.

Over the past year, North Korea has carried out over 25 ballistic missile tests and conducted its fifth nuclear-weapon test as well. All these tests are in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that ban and condemn them. Each resolution has led to harsher sanctions, but sanctions have had little if any effect on Pyongyang’s behavior or rhetoric. Even China’s criticisms, which have grown more severe in recent years, have not moved North Korea to change course. …

The Danger to you of Bitcoin

One of the great mysteries of the 21st century is the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. While his creation of the blockchain and a new cryptocurrency was an immense achievement, Bitcoin itself is only one of a diverse array of emerging currencies. Still, when I taught my Digital Globalization course last winter, I learned from my students that in my city (Portland, Oregon) there was an ATM at the local mall (Pioneer Place) where you could convert Bitcoins to cash, bars where you could buy your drinks in Bitcoin, and even apartments were you could use it to pay your rent. The reason for this rapid adoption has been the many promises that Bitcoin makes. Need to send money? There is no need for Western Union. Are you concerned about the security of banks? Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not a fiat currency (created by a sovereign government) and hence beyond the reach of the Federal Reserve or the banks. …

Conspiracy Theories and Murder

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
On January 18, 2015, Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead with a single bullet shot to his right temple. Nisman was the lead investigator in a 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. He had been scheduled to address the Argentine Congress the following day, to denounce the President’s actions related to the investigation. His death unleashed a media firestorm, as opponents of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner argued that he had been assassinated, while her supporters advanced their own conspiracy theory, which pointed the blame for his death at the nation’s security services.

Academics dislike conspiracy theories, which are typically omitted in social science theory classes, even though they are far more influential than the theories of Gramsci, Weber and Durkheim. There are many reasons for academics’ distrust of these theories, not the least of which is their historical association with political and ethnic persecution. At the same time, conspiracy theories are true “theories,” in that they provide an overarching framework for understanding the world. While they don’t have foundational writers, they also have their texts. They also emerge from the folk and not from intellectuals, and accordingly provide insight into popular attitudes, beliefs and fears. …

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