John Robert Colombo reflects on writing and the origins of his paranormal interests

John Robert Colombo fears that we may lose First Nations’ tales of the supernatural. 

Canada’s “Master Gatherer” of quotes, aphorisms and folklore has been writing about myths and Canadian ghost stories for six decades, and the group of storytellers that seem to be glossed over is that of the First Nations.

He published six books as part of “The Native Series” in 2004, which included previously published books, Voices of Rama, The Mystery of the Shaking Tent, Songs of the Great Land, Songs of the Indians, Windigo: An Anthology and Poems of the Inuit.

The 83-year-old poet couldn’t quite put a finger on the reason behind the lack of interest in the stories from First Nations but expressed exasperation at the lack of interest in those who first inhabited the mysterious lands of North America.

“What surprises me is that the Canadian public has so little interest in such material and that the Native people pay lip service to it,” he wrote in an October email. “I had to publish the first editions of these works at my own expense.”

A well-travelled man, Colombo has visited overseas where there is a hunger for the legends and myths of the aboriginal peoples that so few Canadians pay credence to. 

“We risk losing those stories, but more importantly, we risk losing those parts of ourselves that tell such stories,” he said.

Back in the 1960s, when Colombo was in the early stages of his career, many writers had a desire to save Canada. It was, to him, “the sense of establishing and revealing the country’s claim to having a literary culture with useable traditions from the past and current ones from the present”. 

Rightly so. The era leading up to and after Canada’s Centennial celebrations was rife with cultural nationalism. Authors were champing at the bit to develop a national identity through their prose.

Some of Canada’s biggest names arose from the uptick, including Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and Timothy Findley. 

Colombo was in the mix as a poet, but most importantly he started to gather stories from across the country. Colombo’s Book of Marvels, published in 1979, was one of many books that would feature the stories of Ogopogo, the St. Louis Ghost Light, Grenadier Pond and the Thunderbird. 

John Robert Colombo was dubbed Canada’s
“Master Gather” by Victoria poet and writer
Robin Skelton back in 1974. The moniker has stuck.

Colombo’s interest in history and the folklore that has manifested on the continent started back when he was a young boy in Kitchener during the 1940s and ’50s.

He admitted freely, “I think I was born an anthologist.”

The anecdote he shared to underscore that revelation was one where he remembered cutting out cartoons that took his fancy from magazines. He would glue them into make-shift books and then sign his name.

“My mother cautioned me, ‘They are not your work’,” he recalled. “I said I understood that this was so, but also that in some way I thought they were ‘mine’ too because I did not want to be parted from them.

“Every compiler feels the same.”

Colombo’s world would move from cartoons to sci-fi. It was the Golden Age of that particular genre and a teenage Colombo would head to the newsstands to pick up the latest issue of the pulp magazine, Famous Fantastic Mysteries. His favourite writer, after all, was Sax Rohmer, known for his Fu Manchu novels.

That was the start of his love for psychical research and parapsychology. From the works of Rohmer, he started a deep dive into the works of psychical researchers. Back then, they all had Ph.Ds. 

He would spend his days at the Kitchener library, browsing through the racks for books on the occult and the paranormal. But he also had another source in a retired stockbroker, Alexander Watt. 

It was there where he discovered a myriad of valuable “esoteric texts”, including letters written by Aleister Crowley.

“I have never confused the occult and the paranormal with the religious quest, just as I have never confused flying saucers with alien beings,” he wrote. “Such interests tell us more about ourselves than they do about remote powers and beings.”

The reading materials he chose to absorb would lead him down the path of not just writing, but compiling some of Canada’s greatest myths, legends and folktales, especially those revolving around Falcon Lake, Banff Springs Hotel, the Hockey Hall of Fame and Ogopogo.

His life has been consumed by collecting tales of the inexplicable and putting them to paper. But ask him if what’s he’s heard has changed his perspective on the unknown.

“I was interested in reading and researching new and outrageous ideas. That has been a constant in my life,” he wrote. “There was no specific event or experience, as I continue to remain skeptical about what cannot be readily reconciled with reason.”

John Robert Colombo grew up enjoying the science fiction books of Sax Rohmer.

A Collection of Canadian Mysteries written by John Robert Colombo

“They are the best collections of their kind being produced by anyone, anywhere, as far as I can see.” (Hilary Evans)

The Big Book of Canadian Hauntings (Dundurn, 2009)
The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories (Dundurn, 2008)
Strange But True (Hounslow / Dundurn, 2007)
More True Canadian Ghost Stories (Prospero, 2005)
Terrors of the Night (Hounslow / Dundurn, 2005)
The Monster Book of Canadian Monsters (BSDB, 2004)
True Canadian UFO Stories (Prospero, 2004)
The Midnight Hour (Hounslow / Dundurn, 2004)
True Canadian Ghost Stories (Prospero, 2003)
Many Mysteries (C&C, 2001)
Ghost Stories of Canada (Hounslow, 2000)
Ghosts in Our Past (C&C, 2000)
Weird Stories (C&C, 1999)
The UFO Quote Book (C&C, 1999)
Mysteries of Ontario (Hounslow, 1999)
Singular Stories (C&C, 1999)
Three Mysteries of Nova Scotia (C&C, 1999)
The UFO Quote Book (C&C, 1999)
Closer than You Think (C&C, 1998)
Marvellous Stories (C&C, 1998)
Haunted Toronto (Hounslow, 1996)
Ghost Stories of Ontario (Hounslow, 1995)
Strange Stories (C&C, 1994)
Singular Stories (C&C, 1994)
Ghosts Galore! (C&C, 1994)
Close Encounters of the Canadian Kind (C&C, 1994)
Voices of Rama (C&C, 1994)
The Mystery of the Shaking Tent (C&C, 1993)
Dark Visions (Hounslow, 1992)
The Little Book of UFOs (Pulp Press, 1992)
UFOs over Canada (Hounslow, 1991)
Mackenzie King’s Ghost (Hounslow, 1991)
Mysterious Encounters (Hounslow, 1990)
Extraordinary Experiences (Hounslow, 1989)
Mysterious Canada (Doubleday, 1988)
Windigo (Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982)
Colombo’s Book of Marvels (NC Press, 1979)

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