The following interview appeared in the premier issue of The Spook.com, and was conducted by its editor, Anthony Sapienza. I highly recommend checking out this great, new online magazine.
The Spook, July 2001
A Look Behind the Curtain with Alex Shoumatoff
Alex Shoumatoff likes to talk rather than answer questions. Considering his experiences, the places he’s been-that’s really all that’s needed. Even as an interviewer, your job with Shoumatoff is to just listen. The story will write itself.
Put yourself in my seat. It’s comfortable enough. The place is Montreal, where Shoumatoff lives. The restaurant is Moishe’s Steak House, a Jewish-run establishment with white tablecloths and meticulously ironed waiters. Steak and pickles and homemade coleslaw with a wine list that would make the even snobbiest New Yorker blush. You can’t really share our meal, but you will soon feast on Shoumatoffs words.
Across the table is your subject: the quintessential interviewer, a journalist who has traveled to some of the oddest places in the world and written masterfully about them. The author of ten books and a former staff writer for The New Yorker, he’s currently a contributing editor of Vanity Fail: Shoumatoff looks like a cross between Paul Gauguin and Henry Miller as portrayed by Fred Ward in Henry and June. He is far from inconspicuous in his French beret and neon-green-trimmed half glasses.
You are there to listen to Shoumatoff expound on unexplained phenomena for The Spook. As he traveled the world, Shoumatoff has experienced such strange encounters on numerous occasions. But is this frightening? Are such paranormal events the raw material for horror and science fiction?
Shoumatoff is ready to roll. You place a tape recorder on the table between the half sours and the expensive wine list-feeling all the while like the kid in Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. Press the record button and your subject begins to take you on a verbal journey.
When you say horror, what are you really saying? You’re talking about things out there that the scientific mind has not been able to quantify. This doesn’t mean they’re not there-just that our science hasn’t been able to figure them out or put a name to them.
“I’ve experienced these things-experienced them a lot-because I go to nonmodem, traditional societies where people are still more aware of these kinds of things; aware of the spirits, the plants and the animals. They haven’t taken them out and created an abstract monotheistic Judeo-Christian kind of god. The spirits are still there with the Amazon Indians or the Navajo.
“These people are dealing with different realities, dealing with realities we don’t deal with. It’s always been my view that whenever there’s a belief system that believes something, then that something exists-at least to a certain level. If you remember in my book, Legends of the American Desert-when I was with the Navajo, there was this guy I know, Kee Richard, who had these nosebleeds. It turned out he had a tumor in his nose and the doctor said it was cancer and zapped it with radiation. But his wife, Sally, had an aunt who was a medicine woman. She took one look at Kee Richard and asked, ‘Did you ever kill a porcupine?’
“‘Well yes,” Kee Richard said, ‘When I was ten, I clubbed a porcupine with a stick from the fIfe and it went off to die with blood pouring out of its nose.’ So Sally’s aunt told him he had to offer turquoise and abalone to the porcupines to make a confession and ask for forgiveness.
“Another time, Sally’s sister was bitten by a rattlesnake. After that Sally started killing all the snakes she saw. One day at noon she was out taking care of sheep in the desert and the light turned purplewhich is the color snakes supposedly see.
“This snake comes up and says, ‘Why are you killing all of us?’ Sally says, ‘Well look what happened to my sister.’ The snake says, ‘If you leave us alone, we won’t bite anybody in your family.’ So the snake and Sally make a deal.
“That’s a very good example of this different way of seeing things. But you don’t even need to go outside of your own society to experience such things. I remember, for instance, when I was in college-I was going out with this French girl and I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard and she was over in England studying art. I missed her desperately and we wrote each other every day.
“One night I got drunk at the fraternity house and passed out behind a sofa. I remember dreaming she had fallen in love with her art professor and was breaking it off with me. She never had mentioned anything about an art professor to me though, The next morning there was a letter from London saying that it was exactly as in the dream.”
Quietly, the waiter, Tony, brings the steaks. You ask him “Is this from a mad cow?”
“No, no, no,” he says, “That’s from a good cow, a very tender cow. Would you like a little bit of steak sauce with that?”
“Is there something I need to hide?” “No, no, no,” he says, “The steak is very good as it is,”
Shoumatoff begins to eat, but continues: “Another example I can think of in my own life was how my first wife loved dogs and one day she brought home this Welsh corgi, which she called Dylan. We split up and I got Dylan. Dylan and I were really inseparable; he slept in my bed and sat next to me while I was writing.
“Then, in 1976, I went down to the Amazon for nine months and came back with my second wife, a Brazilian, She didn’t like Dylan because he was like the last vestige of my previous marriage, So Dylan was kind of squeezed out and he started to wander. This was in Westchester County and we would get calls from Scarsdale saying, ‘You gotta dog called Dylan? He’s here.’
“It was a sad situation for me. Then we had our kids. One time Dylan bit one of the boys in the upper lip, so we gave him to my mother, who loved dogs, and it was fine. Dylan sort of transferred his affection to my mother, forgot about us and lived the last couple of years of his life very happily.
“Then one day my wife and I were going out and I went to get this Portuguese babysitter-Maria was her name. Maria showed me her beautiful garden. In the middle of this garden there was this dog house and out of this doghouse rushes this dog who was on a chain and bites me on the thigh, Really painful. I could hardly walk. I had just managed to get home and the phone rings, It’s my mother and she’s in tears. She says, ‘You’ll never guess what happened. Dylan walked out into the road and was killed by a car.’ It happened at exactly the time I was bitten by the other dog.
“Now, don’t tell me that wasn’t a message that Dylan was sending through the dog world.
“These things happen and I’m sure everybody has stories like that. So that’s what I’m saying-there are definitely these telepathic force fields out there,
“I remember as a kid- about the age of 13-1 used to have these mystical experiences in the woods where I could feel the presence of all these animals that I couldn’t see, That’s the way a lot of Amazon Indians are. They’re very much in touch with these force fields. There’s one tribe I visited, they called white people ‘No Eyes’ because they didn’t see what was going on in the world.
I had a very scary experience in Tibet, a very scary experience, In this monastery, in the town of Ghasa-which is between Lhasa and Chigasa-it’s very dark inside and they have these wrathful deities. They have masks of these very scary gods there.
“I went in-maybe it was the altitude, or something-but suddenly the masks became real. It was really frightening, like a bad acid trip. They somehow take on your own internal state then mirror it back to you. A sort of reflection of your own subconscious-the shadow that you don’t want to confront. It was genuinely scary. I had quite a few acid trips in the sixties and none of them were as scary as what I experienced in Tibet.
“There are other people, travelers, dating back to the nineteenth century who have reported the same thing happening to them in this monastery. So its sort of a well known place for that.
“Very good steak, excellent steak…
Then there is the story, another interesting story… My grandfather was in the senate in
czarist Russia. This is before the Russian revolution, maybe about 1910 or something like that. He was invited by a colleague in the senate to go to this guy’s hunting lodge. It was like a day’s train ride and a four-hour horse and buggy ride into this deep forest on the Finnish border.
“So anyway, the thing they hunted there was a bird called the ‘glukhar’ and the bird was supposedly very delicious. It had this fatal adaptation: whenever it started to sing, it would become deaf. Hunters could sneak right up on it and pop it.
“So these guys went out and they reach the hunting lodge late at night. The man who owns the place only goes there one week-end out of the year and this is it. The keeper of the lodge shows them all to their rooms. My grandfather goes to his room, closes the door and suddenly a cat jumps onto the bed. He doesn’t think anything of it. But then another cat and another cat and another cat… Soon there are dozens of cats and he’s being suffocated by all these cats. He screams and the owner of the hunting lodge opens the door. The light comes in and the cats all disappear immediately.
“The host asks my grandfather. ‘What’s going on here?’ My grandfather says. ‘I’ll tell you in the morning.’
“So in the morning they confront the keeper of the lodge and he says that he has been skinning cats alive on the side to make money. He explains if you skin them alive the pelt is better then shows him this cellar where there are all these bodies of skinned cats.
‘The owner of the lodge says ‘You’re fired. Get outta here.’ He gets an exorcist to come to the place and exorcise the cats. It works, they never appear to anyone again.
“That supposedly happened, but the story has the air of something that happened in 1910 that might be a bit of a stretch to happen now. It’s interesting how the details of the paranormal are influenced by the time and culture in which they occur.
“In Africa, pretty much everything that happens is a result of somebody doing it. In other words, if something bad happens, it’s because somebody has it in for you often your own ancestors.
“In the situation with Dian Fossey [an American zoologist whose field studies of wild gorillas in Rwanda and Zaire added greatly to our knowledge of the nature of gorillas], all the poachers had these fetishes that were supposed to give good luck. One of the theories [about Fossey’s murder in 1985] is that she was killed by one of the poachers whose fetish she had snatched off his neck, rendering him impotent of his powers. He took revenge on her.
“In my wife’s family, who were part of the royal clan of Rwanda, there was an ancestor called Nshongola. She was a woman who several generations earlier had died young, before she could marry or have children. She had to be propitiated with an offering of milk from my wife and her mother to make sure she didn’t do anything out of jealousy.
“Most traditional societies don’t believe that this physical world we perceive as the real world is real. The real world is this world of unseen causes and that’s what’s really happening, what is real.
Time Magazine has called Shoumatoff’s Legends of the American Desert: Sojourns in the Greater Southwest (Harper Collins) one of “the top ten books of the Year.” The New York Times Book Review found it “sublime” and Shoumatoff to be “a wily and attentive guide.” The Spook says: Legends of the American Desert offers both cultural insight and wisdom. You’ll be lost and found in this remarkable book that reveals the great diversity of states of being he finds there. From the belief systems of the Navajo to the Zuni to the Jewish con versos to Biosphere to the Mormons to murderous modem drug lords and more-Shoumatoff weaves history, travel, anthropology, sociology, and personal observation into a rich concoction that is both delicious and filling.
A pining Shoumatoff regrets not picking up a memento he saw at a convenience store while pumping gas in Alamogordo, New Mexico. “It was an ‘Indian Weather Rock,’ consisting of a small rock hanging from a stick on a rawhide thong. The base had a chart:
If rock is wet, weather is rain; if rock is moving, weather is windy; if rock is cool weather is cold; if rock is hard to see, weather is foggy; if rock is casting shadow, weather is sunny.”