REVIEW: The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel

Depending upon who you ask and where you look, the Mothman was first spotted either by a crew of grave-diggers or a bunch of teenagers hanging out near the dis-used munitions storage facilities on the outskirts of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Both sets of sightings describe a large man-sized creature with glowing red eyes and huge bat-like wings. The first sighting of the Mothman was in November 1966 and dozens of near-identical sightings would follow before dropping off almost completely in December 1967.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to account for these sightings; Wild-life experts have claimed that when the residents of Point Pleasant claimed to have seen a man-sized bat-winged creature with glowing red eyes, they were actually seeing either large barn owls or a type of crane with distinctive red plumage on its head. Psychologists have claimed that regardless of what it was that the original witnesses saw, many of the dozens of subsequent reports were results of either hoaxing or a kind of mass-hysteria wherein everyone decided that they too wanted to be part of something that was garnering national attention. The debate still rages at a level sufficient to have established the Mothman as a solid second-tier cryptid: Sure he’s no Bigfoot or Nessie, but he’s easily bigger than the Skunk Apes of Florida or the Ogopogo lake monster.

The thing is that while Mothman is a cool creature and the weird mass-hysteria following the initial sightings is interesting enough to sustain the occasional fresh book or documentary series, the Mothman himself is really only the tip of a much larger and weirder iceberg.

John Keel was not the first man to write a book about Mothman. In fact, he was beaten to market by his one-time collaborator Gray Barker, who was also the first man to write about the so-called Men in Black whose appearance is said to accompany UFO sightings. Barker and Keel were both in the business of peddling woo; they would investigate weird sightings, interview witnesses, and then write up their experiences in books filled with all kinds of bizarre speculation. According to Keel, he and Barker fell out when Barker decided to start inventing encounters in an effort to make the sightings fit a broader narrative that was consistent with a load of ideas that Barker had worked up in previous books and articles. While I would not go so far as to say that Keel’s book is free of made-up stuff and pre-existing theories, The Mothman Prophecies is a book that is entirely free of over-arching narratives and unifying theories. In fact, the only thing holding this book together is the power of Keel’s writing and the tangible sense of a mind that is beginning to fray at the edges.

Keel is both a good and clever writer. Most books about UFOs, cryptids and other forms of Woo-Woo bullshit fall into the trap of seeking legitimacy by performing their own scepticism. While this often takes the form of dunking on people with weirder ideas than the author, there is also a tendency to try and appear legitimate and serious by aping the stylistic tics of science journals and serious investigative journalism. What this means in practice is that while Woo-Woo authors may write books about the Face-Eating Lizard People of the Catskill Mountains, they wind up writing about face-eating lizards in prose that is dry to the point of abject tedium. While Keel may not be Truman Capote, all of his descriptions are evocative and positively dripping with atmosphere: When Keel writes about two young people driving like lunatics to escape the Mothman as he dive-bombs their van, your pulse races. When Keel writes about weird phone calls received in the middle of the night, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. This is good, solid, evocative writing and I think that goes some way to explaining why The Mothman Prophecies has stuck around while most works of Woo-Woo non-fiction tend to drop out of print.

When I say that John Keel is a writer who is both good and clever, I mean that aside from being able to string together a few evocative sentences, Keel shows real intelligence and craft when it comes to his handling of sub-text. Indeed, one of the major criticisms laid at Keel’s feet is that The Mothman Prophecies is little more than a series of partially overlapping anecdotes with next to nothing tying them together. While I agree that Keel makes quite aggressive use of both chapters and parts to give this book the illusion of structure, I would argue that having the book comprise a series of barely-connected anecdotes was a deliberate choice on Keel’s part.

Another big difference between The Mothman Prophecies and many books about the paranormal is that the author actively inserts himself into the narrative. This is not so much an objective assessment of what happened in Point Pleasant between November 1966 and December 1967 as an account of Keel’s investigation into the events of that period and his attempts to make sense of what it was he experienced. Keel’s experiences comprise three distinct but somewhat overlapping layers of weirdness:

The first and most accessible layer of weirdness is made up of the Mothman sightings and the various attempts to explain why the people of Point Pleasant, West Virginia spent a little over a year convinced that their town was being visited by a huge bird-like humanoid with glowing red eyes. Though intriguing and evocative enough to ensure that people are still discussing the Mothman over 50 years later, the cryptozoological aspects of the story is actually the least Woo-Woo of the three layers.

The second layer relates to a series of events that took place near Parkersburg, West Virginia around the same time as the nearby inhabitants of Point Pleasant, West Virginia started seeing the Mothman. While driving home along interstate 77, Woodrow Derenberger was overtaken by another vehicle and, following that vehicle, was what Derenberger described as an Unidentified Flying Object that looked like the chimney on an old Kerosene lamp. While the vehicle appeared to hover above the surface of the road, it behaved otherwise like a regular car to the point where, when its passenger emerged, its doors made a sound comparable to an old car door opening and closing. The driver of the vehicle was humanoid in shape but his physical details were all a little bit off including a skin tone that was too dark to be Caucasian and a grin wide enough to be uncanny. The driver identified himself as first “Cold” and then (in later encounters) “Indrid Cold” and he spoke to Derenberger in a version of English that seemed littered with strange anachronisms and odd turns of phrase including the promise that the pair would meet again “in time”. The fascinating thing about the Cold encounter is that it feels like a UFO encounter made up by someone who had no knowledge either of other reported UFO encounters or science fiction resulting in an encounter that feels more uncannily mundane than alien or Other. Indeed, were it not for the fact that Cold’s vehicle was floating above the surface of the road and that his conversation with Derenberger appeared to take place telepathically, the entire thing could almost be explained away as a late night encounter with a drunk/stoned/mentally-ill driver who decided to stop in the middle of the interstate and strike up a conversation with a fellow motorist. The Cold encounter garnered national media coverage for a period of about three weeks and Derenberger claimed that the interest in his encounter was so intense that people would call his phone and turn up at his house at all hours of the day and night.

It is not in the least bit clear how the Cold encounter relates to the Mothman sightings other than the fact that they happened nearby at almost the exact same time. While Keel does put forward some ideas about how the two sets of events might be related, his chief method of attachment is to simply slide from recounting anecdotes about encounters with the Mothman to recounting anecdotes about encounters with aliens who look or behave a lot like Cold. In one chapter, Keel is writing about wandering about at night hoping to catch a glimpse of the Mothman then, in another chapter, he is writing about wandering about at night hoping to catch a glimpse of a UFO. Keel doesn’t really lean into the idea of there being a connection between Cold and the Mothman but he describes the sightings in terms so similar that you can’t help but imagine a connection.

In much the same way as Keel uses the book’s deliberate lack of structure to slide from stories about the Mothman to stories about UFOs; Keel uses Derenberger’s late night phone calls to slide between the second and third layers of weirdness. At first, Keel is very reticent to share any of his findings for fear of feeding the media and encouraging cranks and fraudsters to start muddying the waters. However, after a while, he agrees to be interviewed by the media and so people start seeking him out in much the same way as they sought out Derenberger. At first, Keel is delighted by all the witnesses coming forward but after the legitimate-seeming witnesses come the cranks and after the cranks come a series of telephonic malfunctions that result in huge bills, weird music playing down the line, and phones continuing to ring even though the provider claims to have cut his line and closed his account. This is arguably the most interesting and bizarre of the layers as Keel uses that weird shuffling slide technique to move from people talking about encounters with aliens to people claiming to have visions of the future. Most of these visions are apocalyptic and Christian in nature, there’s talk about the Pope being stabbed to death in the Middle East and of Presidential statements heralding nation-wide power cuts and the arrival of the Antichrist. Keel takes all of these statements at face value and while he admits that some of the prophecies were outright nonsense, he’s desperate to see them as valid and so oblique talk about Robert Kennedy is parlayed into an accurate prediction of his assassination and the fictitious lethal stabbing of one pope is parlayed into a failed assassination attempt on an entirely different pope.

These chapters are incredibly unsettling as aside from the sense that some force has taken an interest in Keel, there is also a very tangible sense of Keel starting to lose himself in the material. For example, there’s a lot of talk about Keel being so dead broke that he can’t even pay a $50 tax bill and there’s one quite upsetting scene where an old friend reaches out to Keel and offers him some paid work only for Keel to hand him a long-aborted unfinished mess of a manuscript that he winds up disowning in conspiratorial terms as it turns out that the aliens were intercepting his work and replacing it with inferior work.

The book ends with the collapse of the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant, West Virginia on 15th December 1967. The collapse was down to a tiny crack forming in one of the bridge’s supporting eyebars and the resulting collapse not only killed over fifty people, it also seemed to end the ongoing trickle of Mothman sightings in the nearby area. As with the book’s previous movements between different layers of weirdness, there is no discernible connection between the Mothman, Indrid Cold, the weirdos who contacted Keel claiming the Pope was about to be assassinated, and the collapse of the Silver Bridge. Keel even makes it clear that nobody actually predicted the bridge’s collapse but he ends the book feeling that someone might have predicted the collapse and that he might have been able to prevent it had he been more sensitive to what it was the universe was trying to tell him. It’s towards the end of the book that Keel tries his hardest to re-integrate the book’s different layers and so there’s an attempt to suggest that the Mothman may have been Garuda, a Hindu deity whose appearance symbolises violence, and to forge a link between that and the fact that a lot of UFO encounters involved warnings about the use of nuclear weapons. Frankly, it’s all a bit tenuous, it’s all a bit thin, and therein lays its literary power.

Reading between the lines, The Mothman Prophecies is a book about a man who is in the process of slowly losing his shit. Keel begins the book as a weird, idiosyncratic figure that dresses and behaves in a way that marks him as an outsider to 1960s bourgeois normality. He begins to sift through the details of the various Mothman sightings but despite being a seasoned paranormal investigator, he struggles to make sense of the events that are taking place at Point Pleasant. Keel’s problems are then compounded by the emergence of the Indrid Cold encounter and suddenly, he finds himself trying to make sense of not only of people seeing bird-like monsters, but also people encountering UFOs. The more witness statements he collects, the more connections he finds between details of different stories but none of those connections combine to provide anything approaching a unified explanation. What is the deal with the Mothman? What is the deal with Indrid Cold? What is the deal with all of these weird sightings taking place at the same time along the Ohio River?

The film version of The Mothman Prophecies suggests that Keel took such an interest in the events taking place along the Ohio River in late 1966 that ‘events’ started taking an interest in him and so we have the movement from Keel experiencing a load of weird encounters to Keel being submerged in a torrent of witness statements and weird prophecies. Desperate to find some connection between the data-points that are by now completely overwhelming every aspect of his life, Keel descends into first paranoia and then guilt as terrible things are half-predicted only to later come half-true only involving different people at different times and in different places. Keel comes across as a man who has stripped out all of his filters and opened himself up to the cosmos only to be very nearly overwhelmed by the torrent of seemingly-meaningful information. By the end of the book, Keel comes across as a paranoid who is barely a few steps removed from the cranks and weirdos who keep trying to get in touch with him. Interestingly, the film ends with the character based on Keel saving the woman he loves and replacing the Search for Meaning with the bourgeois normality of regular sex and emotional connection but the book is far more unsettling in its implications of a world that is both pre-ordained and interconnected but profoundly incomprehensible. This is an excellent book but the really creepy thing about it has nothing to do with Mothmen or aliens and everything to do with the people who have gone in search of truth and wound up as ranting prophets and doom-ladened shut-ins. That’s the real horror of The Mothman Prophecies and it’s one that Keel only seems to have avoided by the skin of his teeth.

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