By Lisa Bubert
The first novel I ever wrote had a mystery at its heart: a disappearance. It was never explained. It didn’t involve any kind of crime. The disappeared never reappeared. The mystery just … was. It was a storyline I was deeply committed to — and one that, as you may imagine, did not lead to a publishing contract.
Unsolved mysteries manage to be as irresistible as they are frustrating, stoking our imagination even while they tease our need for resolution. Faced with a story that refuses to tie everything into a neat bow, we chew on potential explanations until we find the one we like best — the one that satisfies all our biases, the one that allows us to bask in the knowledge that we (and only we) know what actually happened. A lack of answers may be maddening, but it also allows us to rewrite stories to our satisfaction.
As it turns out, not everyone feels that way. People reading my book maintained that the mystery simply couldn’t go unresolved, that there must be a why to the strange thing that had occurred. Was suspending disbelief suddenly something our brains couldn’t handle? Was it so impossible to believe that in this year of our Lord 2022, a mystery could persist?
In their minds, yes. After all, we have science. We have constant surveillance. We leave a digital self-portrait everywhere we go now, a mosaic sketched from location pings and security cameras and the constant tracking of our personal data. Infidelity in your family is no longer just a whispered theory; a DNA test proves it. So, in fiction especially, writing a story with an unsolved mystery often depends on a contrivance, some convenient loss of modern technology. (A character’s laptop died! A power surge took out the router! Someone threw their phone in the ocean!) Cause and effect skew, leaving the reader with a sinking feeling that things are happening because the writer needed them to happen that way — and nothing leaches the enjoyment from reading like awareness of the deus lurking in the machina.
Thankfully, in real life, unsolved mysteries still abound. Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart? What’s up with spontaneous human combustion? Who the heck was D.B. Cooper? Will anyone ever publish my book? (The world may never know!) From paranormal thrillers to fog-shrouded disasters to pedestrian oddities, let the modern mysteries chronicled herein bedevil your otherwise logical mind.
What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane (William Langewiesche, The Atlantic, July 2019)
The question of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has long been a source of fascination for me. Is it because I still have trauma from that one time we hit turbulence on a flight back from Las Vegas and I was convinced we were all headed for a certain death so I cried to my mother and told her I loved her and then decided that the boy I’d just started seeing would have ended up being my husband if I’ve only had a bit more time? Maybe. (Though I did have more time and he did end up being my husband.) But it’s also because of the same paradox that Langewiesche tugs at in this meticulously reported piece: In a time when it’s nearly impossible for even one person to completely disappear, how is it that a plane full of 239 people could blink off of air traffic radar unnoticed, never to be seen again? The answer — and Langewiesche does propose one, satisfying and unsatisfying in equal measure — is long, complicated, and involves a necessary amount of conspiracy.
The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.
We Two Made One (Hilton Als, The New Yorker, November 2000)
When writing, we’re always challenged to consider external conflicts that are pushing up against internal conflicts and vice versa. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction — and the call really is coming from inside the house. This story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who would only communicate with each other, hits all the high notes of the deeply weird. Known as “The Silent Twins,” the pair led a strange and reserved existence from the beginning, which was exacerbated by the racist trauma and ostracization they experienced from being the only Black children in their Welsh community. (Hello, external conflicts!) As time went on, the two began to have trouble discerning themselves from each other. “You are Jennifer, you are me,” Jennifer would tell June. June later said, “One day, she [Jennifer] would wake up and be me, and one day I would wake up and be her.” I’d always heard people talk about the phenomenon like it was almost paranormal; however, upon reading Als’ essay, I was surprised to find that the story was less one of mystery and more one of self-preservation under untenable circumstances. The real mystery (or perhaps not, if we choose to look) is why so many storytellers are more willing to see this as a story of the unexplained rather one of oppression.
For most of their lives together, they refused to speak to anyone but each other — a refusal that led to their emotional exile, their institutionalization, and, eventually, to the misguided appropriation of their story by activists and theorists who used it to pose questions about the nature of identity and the strange birthright that twins are forced to bear.
The Exorcisms of Latoya Ammons (Marisa Kwiatkowski, Indianapolis Star, January 2014)
Imagine The Exorcist, but set it in 2010s Gary, Indiana, and add the Department of Child Services. Latoya Ammons’ three children are fatigued, bruised, and frequently missing school. Child abuse? No. Demons? Perhaps. What sounds like a plot perfect for the silver screen unfolds in a daily issue of the Indianapolis Star — a ghost story that comes with receipts. Reported with over 800 pages of official records and interviews with case managers, police officers, psychologists, and a priest, this piece is so fantastical it can hardly be believed — and yet there is so much official documentation that even the strongest of skeptics would have a hard time dismissing it.
According to Washington’s original DCS report — an account corroborated by Walker, the nurse — the 9-year-old had a “weird grin” and walked backward up a wall to the ceiling. He then flipped over Campbell, landing on his feet. He never let go of his grandmother’s hand.
“He walked up the wall, flipped over her and stood there,” Walker told The Star. “There’s no way he could’ve done that.”
Later, police asked Washington whether the boy had run up the wall, as though performing an acrobatic trick.
No, Washington told them. She said the boy “glided backward on the floor, wall, and ceiling,” according to a police report.
Who Shot Walker Daugherty? (Wes Ferguson, Texas Monthly, October 2021)
A classic Texas whodunnit, set against the backdrop of West Texas canyon country: Big game hunters clash with a Mexican drug cartel. Or was it a practical joke? Or a hoax for political and financial gain? Who shot first depends on who you ask; as Wes Ferguson describes it, “the question of who shot Walker Daugherty still feels like a political Rorschach test.” Of all the things Texas Monthly does well, true crime might be its strongest suit. Much of that lineage is due to the legendary Skip Hollandsworth, who has turned out more excellent investigative pieces than I can count. But Ferguson is no slouch himself — and this piece, which brings true crime to his usual outdoor beat, proves the tradition is in good hands.
They were nodding off when they were awakened by a frightening noise. The locked side door of the RV was rattling loudly. It sounded as if someone wanted in. Tinker Bell barked. Edwin jumped out of bed and grabbed his gun. “Who is it?” he later recalled asking. “Hey! I got a gun in here. Go away.”
The door handle shook again. He heard a man’s voice outside the RV: “All we want is the motor home.” The demand, he noted, was delivered in clear, unaccented English. Tinker Bell was growling loudly in Carol’s arms, and she didn’t hear the voice. But to Edwin, the man sounded sinister, terrible. “It was just like the devil was on the other side of that door,” he said later. Then he heard the door rattling again. He shot a single round through it.
The Ghostly Radio Station That No One Claims to Run (Zaria Gorvett, BBC Future, July 2020)
If you’re into Cold War history, espionage thrillers, secret Russian conspiracies, or all three, this story is absolute catnip. Apparently, a shortwave radio station that can be heard around the world has been broadcasting since the 1980s, and nobody knows who is running it — nor does anyone claim to own it. The station mostly broadcasts a long drone interrupted occasionally by a foghorn sound; once or twice a week, voices read out random phrases in Russian. (Russia says it’s not theirs, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .) There are many theories as to what’s behind the station, my favorite being the chilling “dead hand” theory, which states that the station is an automatic system scanning the airwaves for signs of life in the event of a nuclear detonation. If no signs of life are detected in the country of origin controlling the station, a retaliative attack is automatically triggered. Mutually assured destruction, shortwave style. Whatever it is, I’d love to read some spy fiction about it. Solved or not, the story practically writes itself.
Once or twice a week, a man or woman will read out some words in Russian, such as “dinghy” or “farming specialist”. And that’s it. Anyone, anywhere in the world can listen in, simply by tuning a radio to the frequency 4625 kHz.
It’s so enigmatic, it’s as if it was designed with conspiracy theorists in mind. Today the station has an online following numbering in the tens of thousands, who know it affectionately as “the Buzzer”. It joins two similar mystery stations, “the Pip” and the “Squeaky Wheel”. As their fans readily admit themselves, they have absolutely no idea what they are listening to.
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.
Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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