Hi everyone! Kevin Lucia stopped by with a guest article in conjunction with the release of his new novel from Crystal Lake Press, called THINGS YOU NEED (out Sept. 28, 2018), which is another release in his Clifton Heights world in the Adirondacks. I really love Kevin’s writing style as its unique and best described, I believe, as cosmic horror leaning very heavily towards quiet horror with a supernatural bent. As Mallory Heart Reviews said, “It creeps up on you with little tiny cat feet.” To me, that’s one of the best types of horror. With Clifton Heights, you can think of Stephen King building up his fictional town of Castle Rock, but as with that, all Kevin’s books have individual story lines. In Things You Need, it’s a collection of short stories with individual story lines as well from the town, and a wrap-around story that makes it even more interesting.
Lucia’s characters quite come alive off the page. Actually, I should say his character Gavin Patchett is the one here at Oh, for the Hook of a Book to talk to us, Lucia was just the facilitator! Patchett will tell us about his investigation into the closing of Blackfort Valley Sports Camp and some….well…interesting accidents that had occurred there, accounts of strange-eyed young men, and an eerie quiet that befalls at night….
That’s enough to have me intrigued, you? Let’s let Mr. Patchett take over for now, but this also foreshadows a free novella in the Clifton Heights world that will be out from Lucia around Halloween, called Long Night in the Valley.
Rest in Peace, Blackfoot Valley
After two decades of sitting in neglected ruin, Blackfoot Valley Sports Camp – on Kipp Hill Road, just outside of Clifton Heights – is finally being laid to rest, some twenty years after its “death.” Looking back, I suppose its end was inevitable. Camp owner Jerry Ruben had quietly battled Multiple Sclerosis his entire adult life, though for most of his tenure as camp director, it had remained safely in remission. No one – not even his colleagues – knew of his condition.
His last three years of ownership, however, the MS reared its ugly head. Amidst growing complications, Jerry struggled to run the camp with his usual efficiency. Many folks say they remember how tired he seemed those last three years. Tired, distracted, and distant. He was far more than tired, of course.
He was dying.
And though no one knew it, Blackfoot Valley was slowly dying with him.
Something more than Jerry Rueben’s illness was brewing back then, however. Something changed at Blackfoot Valley after I last worked here as a counselor the summer of 1992. There were accidents, and deaths. Earlier this week I did some digging on the Internet. According to several archived articles of the Utica Times, I learned these accidents and deaths happened after a failed attempt to build more cabins in the woods behind camp.
Because even though he was dying of MS, Rueben was apparently attempting to expand his operation. His purpose seemed hazy at the time – enrollment at camp was falling, so there was no real need for more cabins – but the construction went ahead, regardless. Maybe because he was sick and fighting for something to hold on to, those around him conceded to his plans. He had the money, he wanted to expand…so why not?
Anyway, before reading those articles, I vaguely remembered hearing something about several bad accidents at Blackfoot Valley while I was away at Webb Community College. What I read in the articles shocked me, however. Apparently, over the course of two months, four workers mysteriously fell to their deaths in the small valley behind the cabins, Blackfoot Valley itself, the one from which the camp owes its name.
No one saw them fall. They were discovered in the morning before work, or at the end of the day, or after lunch, crumpled at the bottom of the valley, their necks broken. Officials couldn’t understand how they fell. The valley’s bottom was certainly filled with dangerous rocks, and the valley was deep enough for a fall to be fatal. But the newly constructed cabins were at least thirty feet from the valley’s edge. The workers had no call to come near the valley…at that time, anyway.
Apparently, there had been plans to construct steps and railings down into the valley, for some vague reason Jerry Rubin never clearly articulated. Something about a “nature walk” for a “different kind of summer camp” he was planning. I discovered exactly what kind of camp through my Internet digging.
According to several more archived articles I found, more deaths and accidents followed, even after the expansion was canceled. Again, four in all, also involving the valley behind camp in some way. The first incident involved Laura Mason, a junior from Utica-Rome. The next, Grace Williams, a local who had worked here as a counselor during Cross Country Camp. The last accident which happened while Blackfoot Valley was still in operation hammered the final “nail” into its coffin. Micah Cassidy – a counselor – saw a promising college basketball future destroyed, along with his knee.
That summer turned out to be Blackfoot Valley’s last as the camp many of us had all known and loved. In the off season, during my junior year of college, Jerry Ruben quietly sold Blackfoot Valley to an out-of-town buyer looking to run a summer “spiritual retreat for youth.” This is where, according to some other articles I’ve discovered, Jerry’s expansion plans could be traced. Before his MS had gotten too bad, Jerry had been in partnership with these out-of-town buyers. His plan had been to change the focus of the camp all along, to make it into a “different kind of summer camp.” What kind of “different” summer camp would become apparent soon enough.
Jerry died a year after the sale. Sometimes, in my crueler moments, I wonder if he died in shame over what he’d planned for Blackfoot Valley.
No one knew much about Blackfoot Valley’s new owners, nor did anyone know or understand Jerry’s motivations for partnering with them. They did little to engage the locals. Technically, Blackfoot Valley sits outside Clifton Heights town limits, so the new owners apparently dealt more with Webb County and not Clifton Heights. Under its new ownership, the camp wasn’t open to local youth. It billed itself as a “private spiritual retreat” and was planning on serving only privileged clientele from out of town.
Rumors spread from the very start that the new “spiritual retreat” was little more than a waystation for rich families to dump their kids. Folks in Clifton Heights whispered the camp itself had become a week-long celebration of decadent teenage vice. In the first few years of its new ownership, people reported driving by the camp late at night and hearing loud music and what sounded like an everlasting rave party. Folks also whispered about the strange-eyed young men – presumably camp counselors – who came into town to buy large quantities of liquor and beer during the weeks camp was operating.
According to the rumors, something changed about three years into Blackfoot Valley’s new ownership. The late-night parties ceased, as well as stories of hearing loud music and carousing. People spoke of an eerie quiet descending over the camp, especially at night. The strange-looking college boys still came into town for booze, but they seemed even stranger, and more distant, if that were possible.
That’s when the new stories began spreading. Ones a little more difficult to blame on hard feelings. Stories more fantastic, improbable, even implausible. The “spiritual retreat” at Blackfoot Valley had become a cult. Camp counselors led their charges in devil worship and orgies. And no one – down to the last person – had anything good to say about those vacant eyed, distant-looking college boys who came into town for booze. They acted strangely mechanical, it was said. As if they were pretending to be regular people and didn’t quite know how to act the part.
How credible are these stories?
Hard to tell. It’s tempting to chalk them up to free-floating resentment about Blackfoot Valley’s sale and Jerry Ruben’s apparent betrayal. For years, Blackfoot Valley Sports Camp was the northeast’s finest summer sports instruction camp, right in our backyard. Local sports legends – such as Micah Cassidy, Kevin Ellison, and Grace Matthews – had honed their skills here. Though I was never more than a seventh man at All Saints, I did also. When a shadowy out of town owner bought it in a deal apparently brokered by Ruben himself, Clifton Heights folks took it personal. I’d like to believe lingering bitterness accounted for most of those rumors.
The stories of those distant, strange-acting college boys makes me wonder. We get our share of drunken college guys from of our own Webb Community College, and nearby Utica State. Folks grumble about them incessantly, but in an affectionate, possessive way. They may be loud, obnoxious, disrespectful louts…but they’re our loud, obnoxious, disrespectful louts.
The way they talk about those camp counselors? No such affection. More like a barely repressed loathing, as if they’re holding back shivers as they speak of them.
In any case, because the camp’s suddenly cloistered state, and maybe also because of this repressed sort of revulsion for the new camp counselors, over the next three years Clifton Heights and all of Webb County entered in a willful denial of the camp’s continued existence. Slowly but surely, people did their best to banish it from their collective thoughts.
Eventually, those odd counselors stopped coming into town. I imagine folks wondered about that, but figured – and prayed – they’d decided to go elsewhere for their beer, like Old Forge or Whitelake. In any case, people talked less and less about the camp in the small valley outside town, until one day…
Someone drove by and discovered it abandoned. Upon further investigation, they also discovered the final body claimed by Blackfoot Valley. A middle-aged man named Charles Hogan. He’d grown up locally in Clifton Heights. After college he moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lived until his only son tragically died. A year after his son’s death and a grueling divorce, he stopped coming into work and disappeared.
No one knew where to, until six months later his body was found stretched out in the overgrown grass of Blackfoot Valley’s courtyard. Coroners couldn’t determine a cause of death. Because of the corpse’s oddly preserved condition, they couldn’t determine the time of death, either. He could’ve lain there for hours, days….even weeks. Also unknown was why Charles Hogan found his way back to Blackfoot Valley, where, incidentally, he’d been a standout basketball player in his youth. His car was discovered in the parking lot, and based on the debris inside – junk food wrappers, styrofoam coffee cups, crumpled packs of cigarettes, empty beer cans, and old clothes – it appeared he’d been living out of his car from a long time before coming to Blackfoot Valley.
The case remains open to this day.
Also unknown is exactly when or why the “new” Blackfoot Valley ceased its operations. Did Charles Hogan die alone in an abandoned camp…or did the campers and counselors have some hand in his death before they left? Is that why they left? No signs were found as to why everyone left so suddenly, or where they went to. Stories say the camp was strewn with supplies, clothes, food, and booze, as if one day, everyone simply got up and walked out, en masse. The lawns and shrubs showed signs over overgrowth, also.
Despite this shocking turn of events, just as Clifton Heights folks dismissed Blackfoot Valley’s existence, they gradually dismissed its sudden closing and the discovery of Charles Hogan’s body. Blackfoot Valley was closed and in ruins, end of story, Jerry Ruben’s shameful legacy finally buried. Some poor sap had been found dead there, probably because he’d overdosed on drugs or something, and that was all. That Hogan had grown up in Clifton Heights seemed of no importance whatsoever.
Blackfoot Valley Sports Camp fell completely silent for the next twenty years. At some point, ownership must’ve quietly reverted back to the county, but there’s never been any talk of developing the property for other uses until now. No one has ever seemed to care much about trespassing. Looking back on my short time as an English teacher at Clifton Heights High, I remember kids talking about braving old Bassler House (a teenage rite of passage in Clifton Heights) and exploring the ruins of Zoo Town up behind Raedeker Park. Thinking on it, I don’t remember any of them saying a word about messing around at Blackfoot Valley Sports Camp.
Thanks to my own case of willful amnesia, I hadn’t thought twice about Blackfoot Valley myself until I was talking to Kevin Ellison (one of those former standouts I mentioned) in his bookstore, ArcaneDelights, and he mentioned it had finally been purchased by the Nuemann Development Company. It was scheduled to be demolished by the end of the week.
I decided I needed to see it one last time before it came down. After finding those archived articles detailing Blackfoot’s increasingly dark history, I called Bobby Nuemann. He and I attended and played basketball together at Blackfoot Valley High. I called him on the pretense of writing a book about Blackfoot Valley, about who bought it after Jerry Rueben sold it, what may have led to its sudden closing, and the mysteries of its accidents and deaths. Bobby’s not much of a reader, but he knows about the books I’ve written. He said I could poke around the old camp to my heart’s content.
So here I am.
But now that I’m here, standing at the mouth of the cracked asphalt drive, I wonder if I could ever express my true feelings about this place. So many days spent here, playing under the hot blue summer skies, from sixth grade to that last summer before my senior year in high school. Days spent running and jumping, the air split by whistles, coaches barking demands, players yelling while sweat poured down faces, stinging eyes and tasting salty. Nights spent sleeping in bunks, dreaming of the future, of basketball glory, or of the college girls interning in the infirmary that week. Sleeping and dreaming, calves and thighs throbbing with the pleasant ache of exercise.
Proceeding up the warped asphalt path toward the main office building, my flashlight cutting a narrow path ahead in the darkness, I remember also the unpleasant things which happened here, bad things which unfortunately can’t be blamed on anything supernatural. Much as we’d like to preserve memories in a crystalline amber of nostalgia, we have to acknowledge the darkness hiding behind the light. In all our beloved memories, dark things lurk. Blackfoot Valley is no exception.
Approaching the old mess hall, I remember campers dumped here for a week not because they liked basketball or because they wanted to improve their game, but because their parents wanted to pawn them off. I remember their discontent, and in many cases, their misery. I remember how coaches and other players showed these square pegs no mercy. I also remember talented players gone bitter, laboring under the yoke of their athletic parents’ grandiose expectations. From all accounts, Laura Mason, the first victim of the Blackfoot Valley “curse” (yes, that word has actually been used), was one such player.
I remember the bullies, also. Coaches, counselors, and other campers. The desire for power over others knows no boundaries, no age limit. There will always be those who desire most of all to dominate those around them. Much as I loved basketball in high school, as an aggressive contact sport, it does provide ample breeding ground for those who are stronger to overpower those who are weaker. It pains me to admit it, but in my heart, I can’t deny it.
These bullies, who tormented younger campers, the counselors who ruled their cabins with mercurial fists, and the coaches who wielded their whistles like finely honed razors. They linger, these dreadful ghosts, right alongside the good memories. A brooding reminder, I suppose. The brighter and higher the sun, the darker and longer the shadows.
As I walk between the main office building (where the camp caretaker bunked during camp) and the mess hall, I can’t see much of the buildings under my flashlight. I suppose that’s a good thing. I even wonder if that’s why I kept puttering around Arcane Delights before it closed, chatting with Kevin Ellison and roaming his stacks aimlessly, without really looking for anything. Maybe I subconsciously knew seeing Blackfoot Valley one last time by the dim moonlight would let me see it as I wished, would let me use the darkness to re-construct an image from cherished memory.
But even the darkness can’t hide the mounds of garbage bags piled on the main house’s front porch as my flashlight sweeps by. It can’t hide the wildly overgrown lawns, or the coach’s dorm behind the main house, which now leans sideways, its roof caved in.
I skirt the coach’s dorm and move past it, walking along the mess hall, which we raided late nights as counselors. We plundered the cereal supplies and leftover desserts after playing hours of basketball. I enjoyed many nights there with my friends, so maybe it’s the best place to start my tour.
I round the corner for the mess hall’s front door, leaving the ruined coach’s dorm behind. I shouldn’t be surprised at what I see…but I am, regardless.
The mess hall door is gone.
The doorway looms open like a black mouth stretching wide in a soundless scream. My hand shakes and hesitates for just a moment (making me feel foolish, like a child) before I steady my hand and direct the flashlight’s beam into the darkness inside.
It doesn’t penetrate.
The flashlight’s white lance fades into the darkness, almost like it’s being absorbed. It’s not reflected or anything like that; there’s no inner door it’s hitting. The deeper it penetrates into the darkness, the flashlight’s beam fades, as if the darkness is absorbing it…or draining its luminescence.
Staring at the dark, I shiver and again think of all those unaccounted years when the mysterious out of town owners ran their private “spiritual retreat,” what Jerry Rueban called “a different kind of summer camp.” I think of the rumors about what went on, and the discovery of Charles Hogan’s body in a camp abandoned Roanoke-style. I think of the strange-eyed, distant camp counselors, who didn’t seem to know how to act like real people.
I want to dismiss those stories as hard feelings. Seeing the dark in the old mess hall draining my flashlight, I imagine it cavernous and empty, and I can’t help but think of the stories about strange rituals and even orgies. Abruptly, I want to be as far away from the mess hall as possible.
Soon as I swing my flashlight from the gaping darkness and face the path leading up the hill; I feel better. A subtle pressure is lifted as I turn away. Of course, I dismiss my unease as a product of the night, those whispered rumors, and too much Mary Sangiovanni in my reading diet.
Surely whatever happened here at Blackfoot Valley in its years as a “spiritual retreat” wasn’t anything as unclean as I imagine it to be. Maybe uncouth or unseemly, yes. It’s not hard to imagine Blackfoot Valley turned into a drunken away-camp for rich kids whose parents want to be free of them for a summer. I have no problem swallowing the stories of drunken rave parties and ordinary teenage lust. Surely the other stories are nothing more than dread fancy.
But as I face the heaved asphalt path leading to the cabins (which look oddly preserved in the moonlight), the bath house, the main gym at the top of the hill, and the courts beyond, a great sadness fills me. Blackfoot Valley Sports Camp and its memories will be wiped away for good when the bulldozers rumble in tomorrow. All those memories – good and bad – will be torn up and plowed under by moving steel. Whatever may have happened here after the deaths started occurring, or when it became a “spiritual retreat,” will be plowed under, too.
I know why I’ve come, now. I’m at the wake of a dear old friend who went soft in the head and a little crazy at the end, a friend who maybe even went bad…but a friend, nonetheless. And because it seems I’m forever drawn to haunted, abandoned places everyone else has forgotten, it only seems right that I’m here to bear witness when everyone else has forgotten or has chosen to forget because remembering is too painful. I’m a writer, after all. That’s why I write. To remember what others choose to forget.
So, gripping my flashlight tighter, I proceed up the cracked asphalt walk, my flashlight’s beam wavering before me, wondering what strange tales linger in the ruins of Blackfoot Valley Sports Camp, waiting to be gathered and named, lest they be plowed under by moving steel and forgotten forever, and wondering what I’ll start writing about tomorrow, when I sit down at my desk, and pick up my pen.
Clifton Heights, NY
Purchase Things You Need to read more from Clifton Heights:
Thanks so much for reading and to Kevin for joining us!
If you follow along the tour that Kevin put together, you can read many more articles and insights from Gavin Patchett, puzzle pieces if you will, as well as interviews with Kevin Lucia. Enjoy!
Frank Errington Michaels – September 17th – Gavin Patchett’s The Name
Frank Errington Michaels – September 18th – Review
Anton Cancre – Sepember 19th – Hiram Grange’s Vaguely Inappropriate With Gavin Patchett
Amber Fallon – September 22nd – My Lament
Rebecca Snow – September 24th – Interview
Joe Falank – September 26th – Interview/The Man Who Sits in His Chair
Kevin Lucia at Cemetery Dance Online – September 28th – Special Edition of “Revelations” on Cemetery Dance Online, about how the Greystone Bay Series, edited by Charles L. Grant, influenced Clifton Heights
John Questore – September 29th – The Crayfish God
Erin Al-Mehairi – September 30th – Rest in Peace, Blackfoot Valley
Wesley Southard – October 1st – The Sidewalk Scavenger
Ryan G. Clark – October 3rd – Review
Yvone Davies/The Terror Tree – October 5th – The White Cat of Samara Hill
Mark Allen Gunnells – October 7th – The Cairn