When Morgan Reaves heard his sister Elizabeth chattering about the man she saw playing around atop Chimney Rock, he had plenty of reasons not to believe her. People just didn’t go climbing such steep cliffs, not in 1806 and certainly not for simple recreation. Morgan knew there wasn’t anything worth collecting on the small summit of the distinctive chimney-shaped rock in western North Carolina.
And Elizabeth was only eight years old. Morgan, age 11, was too grown-up and wise to believe the fairy tales of little children.
Still, whether driven by brotherly affection or something else, Morgan decided to walk across the field to Elizabeth and follow her gaze up to the Chimney Rock half a mile away. What he glimpsed there amazed him — not one man standing on the high ledge but masses of people flying around and above it.
Morgan’s shouts drew his older sister Polly, their mother, and a black woman (her name lost to history, alas) out of the nearby house. All saw the flying people, hundreds if not thousands of them, dressed in “brilliant white raiment,” as Mrs. Reaves later put it, rising from the trees to congregate at Chimney Rock. A few minutes later a neighbor, Robert Siercy, arrived. He saw the flyers, too, explaining later that the experience left him with “a solemn and pleasing impression on the mind, accompanied with a diminution of bodily strength.”
Who were these strange beings who possessed not only the ability to fly but also the power to influence the emotions of human spectators? Some believers called them angels. Skeptics called them “flocks of birds” or “a refraction or reflection of light from the vapor arising out of the side of the mountain.”
I just call them the makings of a great story. And since I shifted my authorial energies a couple of years ago from writing history books to writing fantasy novels, I’m always on the lookout for great stories to adapt — especially if they are set in North Carolina.
As I explained when my first novel, Mountain Folk, came out in 2021, my turn to speculative fiction was no midlife crisis or childish whim. Myth, fantasy, and science fiction play outsized roles in our culture. Millions of readers in America and around the world have been inspired by colorful tales of a legendary past, unnerved by bleak predictions of a dystopian future, or sobered by insightful explorations of human nature in which nonhumans often play the starring roles.
How many people have learned about the temptations of power not by reading political philosophy but by witnessing the One Ring corrupt their favorite J.R.R. Tolkien characters? How many take their models of courage and loyalty not from classic literature but from Harry Potter and his friends? How many have learned about fanaticism from Frank Herbert’s Dune, about totalitarianism from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, about freedom from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and about sin, atonement, and faith from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia?
I’m no world-class author like Tolkien, Lewis, or J.K. Rowling, of course, but I do aspire to impart timeless truths while giving my readers a fun and surprising excursion into American history and folklore. As a proud North Carolinian, I also make no excuses for featuring our state’s myths and legends in the pages of my Folklore Cycle of historical-fantasy stories, the latest of which is my just-released novel Forest Folk. It’s set in the early 1800s and depicts the War of 1812, the beginnings of the abolitionist movement, and the Trail of Tears.
It also depicts those white-clothed creatures flying over Chimney Rock in 1806, plus other Carolina landmarks such as the Underground Railroad Tree in Guilford County, the so-called Devil’s Tramping Ground in Chatham County, and the spot where the Haw and Deep rivers converge to form the Cape Fear River — a place once known as Mermaid Point.
Do any truths lurk beneath these legends? You’ll get no answer here. That would be telling.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.