Monday, January 16, 2012

Paul Bunyan's Murderous Rampage Through the Great North Woods

As a horror writer, I see things with a bit of a different eye; a heavily bloodshot, bulging eye that if removed from my head will most likely take on a life of its own and hover over the faces of those fast asleep. Or maybe not, but what I mean is that many times if I hear or see something that interests me, the horror writer in me takes over and creates different scenarios, testing them and tossing aside the images that aren't compelling while holding onto those that make me feel as if I just swallowed a handful of chocolate covered espresso beans.

That feeling usually doesn't occur with just one something. Instead, it's a combination of somethings. It can't just be an interesting setting - there's gotta be some metaphorical meat juxtaposed with it to get my gears cranking.

For example, there's an old quarry in Rochester, MN that has always intrigued me. It was once part of the Second Minnesota Hospital for the Insane (soon more kindly named the Rochester State Hospital) - and the land was farmed, worked and quarried by the inmates. There were cattle to tend to, limestone to quarry, soap to make, produce to harvest, sheep to shear. This was apparently before the phrase "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" was taken seriously, since they believed that keeping the inmates working kept them from thinking too much about their problems.

Also on these grounds are man-made caves, carved out of the sandstone above the quarry in 1882 by inmates led by Thomas Coyne - a man who thought of himself at times as a prophet, and at other times as Jesus Christ.

Interesting setting with an interesting history with interesting characters.

The farm portion of this land - and the hill the quarry and caves rest on - was sold to the county in 1965 and was turned into Quarry Hill Park. The rest of the State Hospital closed in 1982 and was eventually remade into a prison.

While I grew up in Rochester, these caves were always open. You could hike up to them at any time and wander through them. Although the park officially closed at dusk, it didn't stop teenagers from sneaking up there with booze and lust on their minds, or perhaps the chance to experience a good scare.  Even during the day, there rarely seemed to be many people in the caves, and it often served as a semi-private place to make out in - although not all that comfortable if you didn't think ahead and bring a blanket.

There were also always rumors about satanic rituals being performed around the quarry. Rumors of small animals found sacrificed and hanging from trees, or pentagrams spay painted on the quarry's walls. At the time, it was exciting to think that such goings-on occurred in our little boring town (because isn't any town you live in boring when you're a teenager?) but if such things as pentagrams and dead animals actually were found, they were most likely the product of a couple drunk kids saying, 'Hey, let's fuck with people's minds, man!' Chortle, chortle, snort, snort. 'Yeah, I saw a dead raccoon back there. Got some string?'

The caves are no longer opened to the public, except on tours offered every now and then throughout the summer.


I've always wanted to write a book based on Quarry Hill. It's the kind of place that captivates me. Stokes the fires in my brain. Puts my 'nads on heightened alert.

It's fun to be a horror writer. And yeah - it's hard not to think of a giant like Paul Bunyan with his big axe running through the forest lopping off heads and painting the pines with fresh blood. That's just the way us horror writers are.

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  1. Hi Joel! You'll probably be interested to know that this month I'll be "ghost-hosting" the third annual Haunted Rochester tour, and Quarry Hill State Park is one of our stops! They don't allow us inside the caves, but we do go out to the burial ground, the "dead man's bridge," and the entrance to the cave where bodies were kept during the winter.

    1. Good to know, Nick - that sounds like a blast!