The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Written in December of 2011.  This was originally intended to be part of a lengthier story about a place called Cooperstown, Tennessee, inspired by the Blue Oyster Cult song Harvest Moon.  I tried to have some degree of authenticity in the writing style, without making it difficult to read (spelling was not standardized in this part of the 18th century, and a letter called the “long S” was still used).


To Bishop Gardner,

It is with great regret, my most Reverend Bishop, that I write to inform you that I must call off this expedition and return to the city of Charles Town as soon as possible. This land is accursed and blighted, and its wasting effects have resulted in the desertion of five of my men and a score of the Indians who accompanied us into the Cherokee Territory. I am sending this message and its courier to precede me, and intend to follow with the rest of my men as early as the weather permits.

It would not do for me to speak to you with tales of the manifold superstitions and fears among those who inhabit this land, so I will spare you those stories which I have heard from our camp followers. Instead, I will recount only what I have seen personally in informing you of the dangers which exist in this rugged territory. I hope that this will do to explain my reasons for returning, and to dissuade future explorations into the high hills west of the Blue Ridge, owing to the perturbations of nature upon which we have stumbled here.

On the fourteenth of May, in the Year of Our Lord 1702, we set out from friendlier lands near the coast to travel inland, at the behest of your office, to bring the religion of the Church of England to the Indians dwelling to the west before certain persons coming from the colonies of the Spaniards could minister to them. Our journey took us through the plantation lands first, where the gentry have their fields, but we soon reached territory where neither the spade nor the plow have touched the earth.

After a week of travel, the land became noticeably more rugged, and the farthest outposts of our Carolina Province vanished away into a wilderness of forest and fields. Our followers, many of whom came from either the Cherokee or Creek tribes, advised us that this land was home to only one population of Indians, that of an unreached band of Cherokee who had chosen to have nothing to do with our traders and would likely choose to have nothing to do with us as well. They told us that they could guide us to them, but they did not suggest attempts at contact, and we concurred with them that reaching out to potentially hostile peoples in this land would not be proper, particularly considering the recent troubles stirred up by the Spaniards in more southerly territories.

Despite our decision not to try to contact the people of that land, some of my men did claim to see them in the forest, and I myself felt at many times that we were being watched, though I was not certain by whom. Our guides told us that the Cherokee band lived several miles to the south of the paths we were travelling, and that it was unlikely they would travel this far north unless they had somehow been alerted to our presence.

Nevertheless, we were left un-harassed by our visitors, if visitors we truly had, rather than simply tricks of the mind. We were through that territory in a short time, and into the higher hills, where at last we did manage to contact some of the region’s inhabitants.

These inhabitants of the upper hills were much more hospitable than their neighbors, and had the rudiments of trade with our own colonists. Many were possessed of muskets and iron cookware and work implements, and one seemed capable of understanding the basics of English speech. We were able to communicate to them through this gentleman and through our guides. For a good three days my party remained with this encampment, all the while trying to reach out to the people with the Faith and trying to find guides more knowledgeable regarding this inland hill country, which our camp followers did not seem to know as well as the lowlands. None of the persons at the camp seemed willing, however, to go with us, urging us instead to retreat to safer ground. Many told us that lands further inland were held by some evil spirit which ate the souls of men and beasts, using trickery and deceptions of the mind to lure them to death.

I was unperturbed by this talk, but almost all of our camp followers agreed with them that we should go no further, despite nominally having been convinced of the Christian religion and being past superstition. Some of the members of my own party were even reluctant to travel further when witnessing the fervency of the men as they told us that we should not go inland. They suggested that some demon might inhabit the land, and our sole man of science, the honorable Dr. Ashton of Cambridge, suggested that there might be some truth to the idea that strange vapors might come from places below the land, as near the vents of some volcanic peaks in Europe. Volcanism had not been witnessed in this new world as of yet, but it was certainly not impossible.

Airing on the side of caution, I decided that what Dr. Ashton said was likely true. Still, I was determined that we should see this place so greatly feared, and so I offered a lofty sum above the normal fee for some of the men from this band of the Cherokee to accompany us to the northwest. All but two, the English speaking gentleman who asked to be called Joseph and a woman who was his wife and whose name was altogether unpronounceable refused to come with us. Joseph seemed as nonplussed by superstition as I wished my own men to be, although his wife seemed to go only at his behest. She seemed quite nervous about the hills to the northwest even then, before we made our march to that region.

It was on the twenty eighth day of May that we came to the forsaken lands which Joseph told us were most feared by the tribe. I will not lie and say that I was not unnerved at that time. Instead, I will say that I tried to make myself brave at the sight of those forests, which felt in some deep way improper. It was the color of their leaves, I believe, which suggested poisoning with some substance from below. They were the wrong shade of green for this time of the year, or for any time, for that matter. Beneath their leafy bows little light could pierce.

The land was a rather simple place, geographically. It was a valley, between two high hills, with a narrow and shallow river cutting through the middle. We followed that river, intending to get through that forsaken valley as quickly as possible, for we did all feel unease at the nature of the place, as well as at the high storm clouds which we occasionally saw through glimpses between the branches. Despite our best efforts, however, we did not manage to get through the valley before nightfall and the coming of the storm.

It was during that night, with the rain and lightning besetting our camp, that we had our first desertion. Some in our camp would favor, rather, that it was a disappearance, and I will include their opinion here. However, as the individual who went missing during that storm-ridden night was Joseph’s easily frightened wife, I have no doubts that she simply meant to slip away while the weather made easy cover. It would not have been impossible for a single person to leave and make a path out of that valley, despite the difficulty for our camp with its carrying horses and twenty-odd men. She was likely nearly back in her camp by the time that morning came and we began our fruitless search for her.

Do not misjudge my statements. I no longer discount that something was in this valley which did not belong upon this Earth, only the suggestion that this woman did encounter it, and that it sought to harm her. I believe this thing to be dangerous only to the mind, perhaps a vapor of a strange sort produced not by volcanism but by some other natural force. Its effect on the mind, however, is most jarring, as I fancied seeing strange sights and hearing odd noises several times during our travels in search of the missing Indian woman. At once I heard a slipping noise, as of water passing over rocks, although the storm has subsided to a very light and misty rain. On another occasion, I believed myself to see an impenetrable wall of blackness, of such a size as your imagination will allow, moving through the forest some distance down the hillside from my position. These were impossible things, and as they were similar only in some details to what the others reported seeing, I believe that they were the unnatural symptom of some Hell-sent vapor, slipping up through such cracks as we were wont to find.

It was during this search that the next wave of desertions occurred. Several among the Indians whom we hired in the low country fled, although I know not how many. If I had to guess as to the number, I would say that it was greater than five, since the size of our party had shrunk to below twenty by the end of the evening when we regrouped. The storm had returned to its original intensity, and we could no longer make our way safely across the ground lining the valley.

That night, few of the men could sleep. Dr. Ashton sat up with me as we talked of what we had seen in the glow of our lanterns. We concurred on the overall cause of the sightings, that it was the result of harmful fumes from deep within the earth, but even the most learned man on our expedition had begun suggesting that the fumes could be coming from the prison of Satan and bringing with them some accursed devil who wished us harm. I rebuked him sharply, and we waited for the rest of the night listening to the storm howl and thunder all around us. In the morning, we had two more desertions, both from a tent of colonial men, and both highly religious in their observances. One man was one of our team’s priests, the venerable Father Danvers. Before, I would have been inclined to ask Heaven to have mercy on that man’s soul, but after what I had seen, I had no doubts that his desertion was fueled by a fear so strong as to limit his right use of reason.

We did not bother to search for these men. The storm was too strong, and I was certain enough of their desertion that I did not find it wise to venture out into the wilderness again. All of us also had contracted a peculiar sickness, an effect that I am sure resulted from the vapor, and which remained with us through the course of that day and to this one. The only man who went out that morning was Joseph, still convinced that his wife had been taken into the forest and had not left of her own free will. He did not return, and I am certain that he made the same decision as to his wife’s location as we did, and returned to his village.

Two of the men who went out later after the rain had lessened to collect wood for our fire fancied that they saw something like Joseph, and that he cried out for help from down the slopes of the valley. They were ready to seek for him, when the wall of blackness which I had seen appeared from another direction and drove the men screaming back to our camp. I told them that it was simply a vapor which poisoned their minds and which was driving us all to sickness, with the somewhat hesitant support of Dr. Ashton, but they would have none of it. They spoke around the camp of what they had seen, and soon I saw men readying their muskets for a duel with a ghost. I can understand why they were so frightened, despite my reassurances. The phantasms which we have seen in this valley have seemed quite real, even to myself.

The three other men from our expedition who departed did so that day as well, although they announced their plans to escape from the valley to me. I could do nothing but wish them the best, seeing as how any attempt to dissuade them might throw the camp into armed mutiny. They left with only a small amount of food, hoping to find their way to the Cherokee camp which we had departed from. I hope that they precede this message, so that I may know that they are well.

The natives who deserted yesterday did so in a much more boisterous manner, threatening to force our muskets from us if we did not give them a supply. They were certain that something evil from a forgotten past lingered in the forests, and cursed us for dragging them to this place. I allowed them the use of four of our weapons, and they set out, telling us that our horses should be accursed and allowed to die in this valley so that we could flee for our own lives, and that all of us who denied the creature’s presence were most assuredly under some dreadful deceit from the thing which lived in the valley.

The rest of the day ran long, with the storm sometimes increasing in its intensity and sometimes decreasing. Fewer than ten people out of an initial troop of more than twenty remained through the day, although none disappeared over the course of the night. We did, however, hear some frightful noises than I am less inclined to attribute to the vapors than to some other, more physical force, such as landslides higher in the valley. Some of my men awakened this morning crying, their physical force sapped from them as if someone had drained their bodies of all their humors. They spoke in frantic tones of a wall of darkness that blocked out the stars with its enormous bulk, one that waited outside the camp for anyone who dared to leave. One of them suggested the possibility of terminating his own life rather than face the thing in the forest, to which I responded that he should remember the fictions brought on by the vapors, and not be so horrified by what he saw.

Because of the sad state of these men, and the general wasted state of all of us upon awaking this morning, I am sending this message to you to let you know that our mission must unfortunately end before its natural closure. I am certain that you will understand, when considering the shape of my men. This runner who I am sending with the message was of greater stamina than most, and the storm seems to be moving away this morning, as I can catch glimpses of the sky even now from my tent. We should depart either this evening or the next day, although I am inclined toward this evening if at all possible, because I do not wish to spend another night in this place. I, too, saw what the men saw last night, and as sure as I am that it is nothing but a lying vapor, my soul questions.

Best wishes and Godspeed,

Sir Walter Bell