Late storyteller Nancy Roberts’ ghost story books have been revised and reissued by University of South Carolina Press this month.
Nancy Roberts’ favorite ghost story as told by her late mother of the same name is called “Swamp Girl.” It’s about a nicely dressed girl who appears to drivers late at night on a highway in the South Carolina swamp asking for a ride home. She gives the driver her address, but when his wife turns around later to talk to her, she’s gone. The driver visits the address the girl gave him and her brother opens the door to tell him the story of how his sister died in a car wreck three years before and that today is the anniversary of her death.
Roberts says this story represents a “fundamental human desire,” and it’s the human side of ghost stories and their tellers that her mother aimed to capture for more than 40 years.
Nancy Roberts was called the “custodian of the twilight zone” by Southern Living magazine and also the “first lady of folklore” during her time. She recorded stories, legends and supernatural experiences about things like the Brown Mountain Lights, Gray Man and Bell Witch. “She loved these stories, and she loved being able to share them with people,” says her daughter. “She was very much a storyteller.”
Roberts’ family had been in North Carolina since the early 1700s, but she was born in 1924 in Wisconsin and grew up in the Midwest. She moved to Charlotte as a young adult and started writing articles for the Charlotte Observer. These led to a series of books begun in 1958 because Carl Sandburg had read her stories in the newspaper and suggested she compile them into something larger.
“She just loved North Carolina, the South and the history,” says the younger Roberts. “She started exploring and writing down stories that she heard from people in the area. She loved visiting different places and talking to the people who lived there.”
Roberts says her mother was also a frequent visitor to local libraries to find out more about the people and history she recounts in her stories. She used the library for research before going on location to see the place for herself. Her husband, Bruce Roberts, accompanied her to take photographs for many of her books, and sometimes her daughter went along too.
While the ghost stories Roberts recorded in her more than 25 books weren’t new, she was possibly the first person to put them in writing and make them available to the public. “She wanted to save the stories and preserve them, because she felt like they were really fundamental truths about human nature,” says Roberts.
Roberts isn’t sure whether her mother believed in ghosts herself, but her mother did tell her that she’d seen the Brown Mountain Lights. “She didn’t discount any of it, and I think she believed the people she spoke with had seen something,” she says. “She felt like those people had some credibility to what they were telling her.”
Nancy Roberts passed away in 2008 at the age of 84. She was still writing a few weeks before she died. Her daughter, an attorney in Charlotte, is now the custodian of her mother’s stories. She makes local presentations about her mother and manages the website nancyrobertsbooks.com in an effort to keep the stories alive.
The University of South Carolina Press has also revised six of Roberts’ ghost story books, including those on the Civil War, Carolinas, Southern Mountains and Appalachia and The Haunted South in new versions out this month. They are available in both paperback and as e-books.
“It’s something you can take and read and enjoy and get scared, but it’s not blood and guts,” Roberts adds about her mother’s books. “I want them to keep going.”