Visiting Personal Demons
J.W. Ocker, New Hampshire’s preeminent travel writer of the strange and the unexplained, approaches his subjects, no matter how grim, with an insatiable curiosity. What happens when his own life gets dark?
In 2016, J.W. Ocker took a road trip with his then-wife and two toddler daughters to Plainfield, Wisconsin, a landlocked Midwestern town, population 862. While not exactly a tourist destination, Ocker had a mission: He wanted to buy a child’s screwdriver at the hardware store where notorious serial killer Ed Gein — referenced in horror movies like “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — killed one of his victims.
“I had to pretend that I was not in there for that, you know?” Ocker tells me in his basement, screwdriver in hand. “I always liked him — well, I’ve always been fascinated by him, because he inspired so many great works of art and horror.”
As one of the preeminent authors cataloging the macabre, Ocker is entirely fascinated with anomalies like Gein and visiting the actual origins of those anomalies to write about them. He has built a brand as the uber-curious, oddity-obsessed New Hampshire travel writer, publishing 10 books in the last 13 years, running a blog and podcast called “Odd Things I’ve Seen” and giving any number of talks to ghost hunters, book clubs and American-bound cruise ships.
With three published young adult novels, one adult horror novel and his last book, “The United States of Cryptids: A Tour of American Myths and Monsters,” garnering more attention than ever, he’s working to expand that reach.
“Within a tank of gas anywhere in the country are astounding wonders — and they’re free,” Ocker says. “I find that very valuable to getting through life.”
Ocker, 46, invited me to spend an afternoon with him at his Nashua house, which is painted midnight black, to talk about his writing career and unusual, if not off-putting, hobby. He did warn me, though: It may not be the best time for a profile. In 2021, one of his brothers committed suicide, and in 2022, he and his wife divorced. This resulted in a stint at a lockdown facility, a month at a farm in England and an ongoing leave of absence from his day job at a Boston-based advertising agency.
Although his writing life, with a growing bounty of opportunities, is as good as it’s ever been, his personal life, with its unexpected, traumatic turbulence, is far from certain. It’s left him questioning the life choices that got him here, and the activities — namely, oddity hunting — that he derives joy from.
“If you’re an introvert, to find wonder, you can just go see cool s**t. That’s kind of my philosophy,” Ocker says. “I don’t know what else I would do — that’s what I’m figuring out right now — if I didn’t have that making life more interesting. Like, one more book isn’t gonna make life more interesting. One more paycheck isn’t gonna make life more interesting. And now that my life plan blew up, trying to build another life plan sounds awful. It sounds like the worst thing I could do in my entire life.”
On a warm and sunny Thursday morning in July, Ocker is sitting in the driver’s seat of his gray 2020 Honda Civic. Wearing dark-wash jeans and an olive-green T-shirt, he looks like your everyday, mid-40s New Englander — except for the 7-foot-tall skeleton cramped in the corner of his garage.
“So, the stuff I put on this map, I’m not sure how interesting it is,” he says as I climb into the car. “I’m at this stage where my weird meter is off because I’ve seen so much — what’s interesting to me might not be interesting to somebody else, and what I gloss over might be super interesting to somebody, so we’ll see.”
Ocker’s agreed to take me on a six-stop oddity tour of New Hampshire, hitting a curated selection of little-known Granite State landmarks over the course of a 100-mile loop. Our first stop is the Caroline Cutter grave in Milford.
Fading and miraculously erect despite its 1-inch-width, the 1830s gravestone looks ordinary enough — until you get close enough to read the epitaph. One-hundred-and-fifty lambasting words aimed at the Baptist Ministry, the screed, written by Cutter’s husband, fills up the entire rectangular headstone and then some, spilling onto a second, smaller stone placed adjacently. “Literally, we call it the grave of the grudge,” Ocker tells me as we arrive at the Elm Street Cemetery. “But you would just never know that. You’d never stop at this cemetery, but if you did, the gravestone would never stand out.”
Ocker is preternaturally taken with subjects whose surface-level appearance belie their deeper nature. Which makes sense, once you get to know him. Jason Ocker, as he’s known by many, works as vice president of strategy at Maark and dresses like a normal dude. Charismatic and affable, he discusses everything from his apathy for cooking to his struggles with mental health in the same measured, engaged tone.
J.W. Ocker, meanwhile, is the award-winning author with a penchant for the grisly. Wielding an encyclopedic knowledge of horror cinema and a vast collection of macabre items in his home (including, among other things, the aforementioned Ed Gein screwdriver, a brick from Edgar Allen Poe’s New York house and a sculpture of a shrunken head with its eyes and mouth sewn shut), J.W. is a true aficionado of the weird. Reconciling these two selves is something he delights in.
“Feeling uncomfortable for not fitting in makes me happy, even though it’s a façade,” he says. “I like people not knowing everything when I walk into a room. You meet most people and within an hour you’re like, ‘They go off on the weekends and work hard at this job and have two kids and a wife,’ and that’s it. That’s as far as it goes. I like people who, when you Google them, you’re like, ‘These people have whole different lives.’ That happens to be me, I guess.”
That split-self goes all the way back to Ocker’s childhood. Growing up in Maryland with three brothers, Ocker’s parents were devout Independent Fundamental Baptists — what he now calls “the worst kind of Christian.” He spent a large majority of his childhood in the church, attending at least one sermon every day and four sermons each Sunday.
While most “indie fundies,” as he calls them, abstained from watching movies, Ocker’s family allowed certain films in the privacy of their home. Secular music was off-limits, as were horror movies. Ocker sneaked sci-fi books by Isaac Asimov and Jerry Pournelle, of which he knew his parents would disapprove of. “There wasn’t much of a family dynamic; the church was really it,” Ocker says. “I didn’t know anything else, but I will say I was lazy at it.”
By the time he hit college, Ocker’s own nascent interests began to take shape. While attending a small Christian college in Florida, he would drive to movie theaters at least 45 minutes away to watch frowned-upon films and escape detection. Horror became his favorite genre, and one movie in particular opened up his world.
“In 1995, ‘Scream’ came out, and it changed my life,” Ocker says. “I was really obsessed with the Jamie Kennedy character, that a character could have such a niche knowledge about such a niche thing and then be useful in a story. He had to find all these old movies that aren’t around anymore, he had to read magazines. And that excited me; I wanted to do that.”
Ocker started writing reviews for horror movie sites on the early-aughts internet. He discovered a passion for first-person writing, injecting a conversational tone into thousand-word paeans dedicated to deep-cut horror films.
After finishing graduate school at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and completely severing his ties to Christianity, he had reached an impasse: He wanted to be a writer, but he lacked direction. With no significant other, friends or discernible passions, he was searching for something to believe in, even if it was something of an anti-belief.
“I was getting to that point where I was asking, ‘Who am I? If I die today, what would I leave behind?’” Ocker says. “And I was like, ‘Literally nothing.’ So, I decided I needed to start writing. Then I realized that I had nothing to write about; I was just this boring dude with no ideas, young. So, I decided I needed to find interesting stuff to write about.”
Ocker threw himself headfirst into the unusual. In 2008, he made the move to New England, which, according to his equation “cool stuff equals length of time and people dying,” churned out the coolest (and strangest) stuff. He started his website, oddthingsiveseen.com, penning and posting essays on those unusual landmarks he’d drive out to see for himself. And, before long, he realized he was the perfect writer to publish a travel guide of sorts — dedicated to the gruesome and grotesque, cataloguing all those abnormalities that gave his life a sense of purpose. Thus spawned “The New England Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites,” his first book, released in 2010 by Vermont publisher, The Countryman Press.
From there, Ocker published a nonfiction travelogue book every two years with The Countryman Press: “The New York Grimpendium,” in 2012; “Poe-Land” in 2014, exploring Edgar Allen Poe landmarks across the country; and “A Season with the Witch,” in 2016, where Ocker moved his family down to Salem, Mass., for the entirety of October.
Each book represented a slight level up, with both “Grimpendiums” winning Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, and “Poe-Land” bringing home an esteemed Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The Edgar win gave Ocker that final push he needed toward becoming an established author; he was still — three books in, working on his fourth — agentless. In the book world, he may as well have been a unicorn.
While the Edgar convinced an agent to take him on, said agent would soon leave her job to become the head of a children’s book imprint at Skyhorse, a Manhattan-based publisher, before helping Ocker sell a single book. Lucky for Ocker, he was sitting on “Death and Douglas,” his take on Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” done darker and grimmer. After that agent-turned-publisher accepted “Death and Douglas” at Skyhorse, releasing it in 2017, Ocker, still agentless, got lucky once again.
Publishers Weekly noted the sale of “Death and Douglas” among 20 other recent acquisitions. What set it apart, though, was its unique listing: Ocker had ostensibly sold it to Skyhorse without an agent. Enterprising agents took notice, and before he knew it, Ocker had a new agent hungry to sell his peculiar tomes. Alex Slater, Ocker’s agent since 2017, has helped sell and publish his two biggest books (2020’s “Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World’s Most Infamous Items,” and 2022’s “The United States of Cryptids”), his first adult horror novel (“12 Nights at Rotter House”) and a barrage of young adult horror novels.
Next year will see two more Ocker books — “Cult Following,” a nonfiction, essay-style book on American cults, and “Welcome to the Ghost Show,” a YA horror fiction. All the while, Ocker’s remained steadfast in searching out wonder from the absurd and sharing it with others via the written word.
“For somebody like me, who’s atheist, nihilist, whatever I am, I’m just like, ‘Oh. You go through s**t then you die,’” Ocker says. “And finding the unusual is part of fixing that. Looking forward to learning that this thing existed that never existed before, it feeds wonder. The wonder is the important part. That’s where you find the joy.”
It’s the fifth stop on our oddity tour, and we’ve just arrived at the Josie Langmaid Monument in Suncook. A 15-foot-tall obelisk peeking out from the edge of the forest, the Langmaid Monument is normal enough viewed from the road, if not a tad ominous. Ocker parks his Civic across the road, at Three Rivers School, and we venture into the woods.
“I think I want to be cremated,” Ocker says, ironically enough given all the gravestones he’s visited. “I just feel like it would be such a burden to the people you leave behind — to pick out a grave … ”
Considering the idea of permanence, of what you leave behind, feels apt given the peculiarity of the memorial we’re gazing at. In 1875, 17-year-old Josie Langmaid was walking to school, cutting through a path in the forest, when she encountered an itinerant lumberjack named Joseph LaPage. The woodcutter, Canadian-born and largely nomadic, had a history of violence. He proceeded to decapitate Langmaid with his ax, killing her instantly.
One of the monument’s four sides reads, “Death lies on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of all the field.” Another says, “Body found 90 ft north at stone hub / Head found 32 rods north at stone hub.” With this grisly, chilling piece of information, we head into the woods to locate the stone hubs. Ocker tracks down the granite post demarcating where her body was found, but after a good bit of bushwhacking and stomping through mud, we come up empty on the head marker.
Despite the gravity of the topic at hand, Ocker appears jocular, laughing about the blunt severity of the memorial. “People back then, especially in New England, had a very different attitude toward the macabre,” he says. “That’s why there’s skulls and coffins on the graves. It wasn’t weird. You go to a modern graveyard, and it’s the most boring thing on the planet.” His entry on the Langmaid Monument in “The New England Grimpendium” carries a similarly lighthearted, gallows-humor attitude, explaining the two stone hubs being there “in case anybody wanted to honor her memory with a CSI reenactment.”
It’s not that Ocker regards serious matters flippantly; rather, he’s of the belief that nothing really matters, and gauges the grotesque with a sort of curious amusement. He doesn’t think ghosts are real but ventures out to haunted establishment after haunted establishment, hopeful that each trip could be the one to change his mind. He celebrates Halloween for two full months every year.
Poking around his study, going through his extensive collection of spooky baubles, I’m struck by the amount of Ray Bradbury memorabilia he owns. His favorite Bradbury work is “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the beloved magical-realist novel about triumphing over darkness with the power of childhood gaiety — which doesn’t exactly line up for a nihilist. It might for a hopeful nihilist, if such a thing exists, but not an aspiring one. Ocker is the former.
“Ray Bradbury is my north star that I’ll never reach, because he’s obviously writing with so much joy,” Ocker says. “I’ll never get there. I’m too cynical and too beaten down by life, but, man, I would love to write like that.”
Jason J.W. Ocker is at that odd inflection point called midlife crisis. He didn’t plan on being here, and it doesn’t even seem like his direct decisions got him here. Sometimes things just happen. But isn’t that wonderful?
“In my world, horror is as much wonder as anything,” Ocker says. “I think the unusualness is just a defense against the boring. I guess, now, I’m back in the trough, wondering, like, ‘Is it actually worth it?’ But for the past 15 years, it was totally worth it. Life changing, life characterizing, worth it.”
An Oddity Tour of New Hampshire with J.W. Ocker
The six Granite State stops Ocker brought us to, in chronological order
1: The Caroline Cutter gravestone in Milford
Located at the Elm Street Cemetery, this odd gravestone features a 150-word epitaph lambasting the Baptist Church for “killing” Caroline Cutter. It was written by her husband, Dr. Calvin Cutter, who was upset after the church booted him for bullying members into funding a church he was trying to construct. Ocker calls it “the grave of the grudge.”
2: Sevilla Jones and Henry Sargent Gravestones in New Boston
These two gravestones tell an entire story: Henry Sargent was in love with Sevilla Jones, but she married another man. So, he murdered her. Jones’s gravestone even says she was “MURDERED by Henry Sargent.” Sargent’s gravestone is in the same cemetery, not 200 feet away.
3: Anti-Gravity Stone in New Boston
A granite slab sits innocuously at a traffic island in downtown New Boston. If you run across the road for closer inspection, you’ll discover it’s a memorial curiously dedicated to “Roger W. Babson and his associates (who) pioneered in active research for anti-gravity and a partial gravity insulator.” Pretty strange. Babson was supposedly a millionaire whose baby sister died from drowning when he was a kid. Thus, like any sane man would do, he dedicated his life to fighting gravity. Babson donated money to various towns and universities, with the stipulation that they put up a monument hailing his anti-gravity fighters.
4: Five-story Donkey Kong Mural in Concord
Tucked behind an apartment building and cafe in the middle of the city, this impressive mural is a whimsical hidden gem. Painted by Nashua nonprofit Positive Street Art, the mural depicts a scene from the classic 1981 Nintendo Donkey Kong arcade game. Supposedly someone living in a nearby apartment saw the crisscrossed beams on the elevator shaft, thought of Donkey Kong and, voila, made it happen.
5: Josie Langmaid Monument in Suncook
This 15-foot-tall obelisk commemorates the 1875 death of 17-year-old Josie Langmaid at the hands of itinerant lumberjack Joseph LaPage, who decapitated her with his ax after they crossed paths in the woods. The monument gives the location where both her head and body were separately found.
6: “Muse of Comedy” 8-foot-tall art deco head statue in Goffstown
This massive head once signaled the top of Manchester’s State Theatre, a former art deco movie house on Elm Street. When the State Theatre was torn down in 1978, the giant laughing face was moved to Saint Anselm College’s Goffstown campus.