I wish I could have found a full-color image of this painting. Unfortunately, the original was lost years ago, and this black-and-white is all I could get. In the original, the prevailing color scheme is a rather sinister yellow. I saw a color photo of it many, many years ago in Life Magazine, and never forgot it. I think I must have been ten years old or less.
If you’ve never passed through the Jersey Devil’s home territory, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, I can tell you there’s no other place quite like it. Technological progress left it behind early in the 19th century, the local economy shriveled up, most of the people moved away, and their towns, homes, and factories fell into ruin. The region is known for its odd place names–Ongs Hat, Double Trouble, Speedwell–and its sandy tracks that may or may not accommodate your car and may or may not lead somewhere, or nowhere. A part of it features large vistas of stunted pines that plays tricks on your eyes. You’d swear, from your vantage point on the road, that the pines were full-size. And then a child comes walking through them, and you startle because you think you’re seeing a giant little girl.
All in all, it’s just the kind of country the Jersey Devil would choose to live in, if it lives at all. No one knows. There’s only belief or disbelief.
But when you find yourself alone on one of those deserted, feeble imitations of a road, disbelief is a little harder to come by.
I was revisiting my brother-in-law’s book today: bittersweet, because Ray is in a bad way and needs our prayers; and his co-author, Jim McCloy, has passed on. Published in 1976, with a new edition in 2016, this is sort of the definitive work on New Jersey’s most famous (or infamous) piece of folklore; and there are some 75,000 copies in print.
And y’know something? This is a very good book! They had a lot of fun researching it, chasing down people and their stories all over the Pine Barrens. It’s well-written, an easy read, and full of wonderful illustrations and photos. Years later they wrote a sequel, Phantom of the Pines–because there are always new stories and sightings of the Jersey Devil. He could fill another volume today, if only he were well enough to do it.
I think the book will live on after him. He never did achieve his dream of being a published novelist, but The Jersey Devil has staying power. It’s still out there on amazon.com, and it’s the kind of book you’ll want to read again from time to time.
For him and Jim it was a labor of love; and it shows.
We are at liberty to say the stories aren’t true. There are an awful lot of stories, though. Thousands of ’em. And why should anyone but a kook want to go around saying he’s seen the Jersey Devil, when he hasn’t? Is everyone a liar? Is everyone a kook?
We don’t have the fire, but we sure do have a lot of smoke.
What is the Jersey Devil? Some say it’s just that–a devil, a demonic entity. Others insist it’s a flesh-and-blood cryptozoological critter, like the Loch Ness Monster. Or a raptor, like in Jurassic Park. The point is, no one knows. No one has ever known.