|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.
Spook, July 2001
A Look Behind the Curtain with
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
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.
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
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
"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.
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.'
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.
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.
don't tell me that wasn't a message that Dylan was sending through the
"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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."