After recently spending a year in Shanghai teaching English, the King University history alumnus spoke with the Johnson City Press to talk more about his work and his interest in local history – which includes everything from UFO sightings to unsolved crimes.
Over the last year, Van Huss has been featured as a guest on multiple podcasts and radio shows to talk about his historical research and writing. He is working on two books, one of which he says is a work of fiction and another about UFO cults that includes interviews with members of several UFO-centered religious groups.
Van Huss’ first book was “Saucers Over Appalachia,” in which he delves into the UFO wave of 1973, the year he was born. He used local newspaper archives from the Johnson City Press and Bristol Herald-Courier to assist him in his research.
“The UFO wave of that year is often mentioned in articles on the history of the phenomenon, but to my knowledge, there had never been a book that specifically dealt with only that year,” he said. “Sure enough, we found dozens of instances. I wanted to use our region to explore how this event must have manifested in other communities across the country.
“I untangled the confusing mass of information, put it all into chronological order, compared the sightings with some of the other, more-covered instances from that year and offered all the explanations that were suggested.”
His next book was “The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County,” which tells the accounts of an unsolved crime spree from 1933-34 in and around the Roanoke area. In this book, he tells of a series of chemical weapons attacks that were reported in the country during that time, starting in Virginia.
“I had read about this story in a book on strange happenings when I was a kid. It was only mentioned briefly, but somehow the strange and terrifying nature of it stuck with me. The unsettling crimes happened first in Virginia and then, 10 years later, another community in Mattoon, Illinois, experienced a very similar scenario,” he said. “Normally, if one looks for books and articles on the events, the later episode in Mattoon is about all that is out there. This has to do with the fact that the case was profiled in an influential academic paper dealing with mass hysteria. My book is the first time that the original Virginia spree has been pretty thoroughly examined.”
Van Huss — who also enjoys playing music, performance art, poetry and painting — said his interest in writing and historical research goes back to when he was a teenager making his own magazines. Years later, he said he is proud to be a self-published writer.
“I've been a writer, in one way or another, since I was a teenager. When I was around 15 or 16 years old, I began my first forays into self-publishing by producing fanzines, using the cut and paste method, in my bedroom floor,” he said. “I would sell them through the mail and advertise in other zines from around the country. In my 20s, I began contributing art, reviews and other original works to a variety of independent publications in print and online. I published a book of poetry around that time, as well.
“I remain self-published and proud of it. I think that today, more than ever, artists of all types have the tools available to them to produce and distribute their work without having to rely on some company to hold the purse strings and have power over their expression,” he continued. “My goal is not to strike it rich as an author. I just write about what is interesting to me and I enjoy saving these strange stories from our past so that others may find them interesting, as well.”
Van Huss’ works can be found online at Amazon and at local bookstores, including Mr. K’s Used Books and CDs.