Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) is a timeless classic that is considered to be one of the first American ghost stories. It still chills because the lines of fact and fiction are so elegantly woven together that the reader cannot be certain which is which.
In the same manner, The Pine Barrens’ Devil, written by New Jersey-born Leigh Paynter, blends meticulously researched history along with imagination to detail the origins and chronicle the existence of the state’s most terrifying resident, the Jersey Devil. Throughout the stories contained in this collection, Paynter also explores the shadows of the heart, the true place where evil resides.
The origin of this book can be traced back to when Leigh and her brother, Jared, were little kids. For fun, the pair would make up and trade original spooky stories to try and scare each other.
“Jared loved these campfire stories and he had asked me to write them down so he could share them with his kids someday,” Leigh told Entertaining Options. “I finally kept that promise, though the stories became more mature and darker than the originals. They are not for kids. Jared and I both loved Lord of the Flies as teenagers, so I formed the stories with that level of maturity.
The Pine Barrens’ Devil is Leigh’s first book. She knew that writing it wouldn’t be easy, but she never realized how hard it would actually be.
“It took me 2 years to write 30,036 words,” she informed. “I was working two jobs at the time that I started writing, so I could only write it at night after work.
The book contains four chapters, each set in a different time period and focusing on a different set of characters. The first chapter that Leigh wrote was Chapter 2. Since that tale didn’t reveal enough backstory, Leigh wrote Chapter 1 next.
“Chapter 4 was the last creation that I shared with my brother. I was in high school when I came up with that story,” Leigh recalled. She wrote that chapter next. Chapter 3, however, wasn’t written until 2020, after her editorial assessment suggested that Leigh write a story to bridge the time gap between chapters 2 and 4.”
Because she wasn’t trying to stay true to a story she had first told many years ago, Chapter 3 was the easiest for Leigh to write. It was modeled after the legendary chess player Bobby Fischer. To give the story the authenticity it needed, Leigh learned to play chess before she wrote it.
Leigh revealed that each chapter in her book was modeled after not only her own flaws with ego, but real life people as well. Chapter 1 was Susan Smith, Chapter 2 was Elliot Rodger, Chapter 3 was Bobby Fischer, and Chapter 4 was Karen Severson. If you do not recognize all of these names, it might be best to wait until after you read Leigh’s book to do your research because some of the source material is quite disturbing.
To get to know Leigh a little better, Entertaining Options asked the author about her childhood, her education, and her experience in TV news. We discovered that while growing up in South Jersey, Leigh was a huge fan of local celebrity Carter Merbreier and his wife, Patricia.
“I loved Captain Noah. That show started my interest in art. My brother and I went through a lot of construction paper. We preferred to sketch with colored pencils and our art told its own stories. When I was in 5th grade at Winslow Middle School #5, I won my first art contest for a watercolor.”
Entertaining Options also found out that even though Leigh was very allergic to gypsy moth caterpillars, it didn’t stop her from being adventurous. She remembered one spring when there was a huge gypsy moth infestation in the Hammonton/Winslow area and she thought she saw a large fence move. It only appeared to move, however, because it was completely covered with fuzzy caterpillars. When she went home that night, her mother knew she had been playing with the caterpillars because Leigh had broken out in a rash that was clearly visible on her neck.
Being the oldest among her group of friends, Leigh was always the one who took responsibility (and blame) when she and her friends got in trouble with neighbors, parents, or got caught up in some misadventure.
“I never realized that New Jersey had a high population until I was in high school. South Jersey felt very rural to me. Everyday, all the neighborhood kids would play in the woods. We often got lost in those woods and even though I’d be scared, I had to be the leader for the younger kids.”
Leigh and Jared
Throughout childhood, Leigh and her brother were very close. Besides trading scary stories, the two would prank each other all the time. “Your toothbrush was never safe!”
Over the years, Leigh kept up with her art. However, while she simply enjoyed it as a pastime, she was never in love with it like her brother. When she was in 8th grade, Leigh made the decision to let her brother be the artist in the family. By the time Jared reached high school, his talent had blossomed and his abilities surpassed anything Leigh believed she could have done.
Leigh’s parents pushed her to get good grades and stressed the importance of a college degree and career. However, even with such a solid support system, Leigh still felt that she had limited options as a woman. Ultimately it was comic books and cartoons that turned her on to journalism. “All of the female characters were journalists: Lois Lane, Vicky Gale, April O’Neil, etc. It seemed like an important, yet fun, job for a woman. So, starting in middle school, that was the path I put myself on.”
While she was attending Rowan University, Leigh was an entertainment stringer reporter for the Courier Post and a special projects intern at WPVI 6ABC. Len Lannon, a freelance photojournalist at WPVI, gave Leigh her first opportunity in TV News by allowing her to tag along on his Friday 11pm to 6am shift so she could learn how to shoot and edit video.
“I saw a lot of violent crime that summer working with Len, which was sobering,” Leigh recalled. “There are some images that stick in your head. One night, we were videotaping the Philadelphia police as they were investigating a shooting in South Philadelphia. The victims survived, but there was a pool of blood on the ground. This bright white fluffy cat sauntered into the crime scene and stood in the pool of blood, lapping it up. It was the freakiest thing I had seen up to that point.”
Leigh and Moxie
After graduating, Leigh accepted her first job as a news photojournalist down in Sarasota, Florida. A year later, she left to serve in the U.S. Peace Corps (Armenia 2006-2008). When she returned from the Peace Corps, Leigh attended grad school at S.I. Newhouse School Of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She returned to Sarasota for a brief period of time before moving to California to work in TV news.
One of the most unnerving moments in her career came when she was covering the Speed Freak Serial Killers case in California.
“After Wes Shermantine started revealing body locations from death row. I was able to convince a local rancher to let me on his property to see what these old wells actually looked like. Seeing these wells, knowing that someone could have been thrown down there with no way out… and that there could be more victims because there are so many wells… it was chilling.”
There are other stories that Leigh has covered which were even more upsetting, but she preferred not to discuss them. She did reveal, however, that since childhood, there has been a dark specter who repeatedly visits her dreams.
“I walk into my bedroom and there is a large man – giant – cloaked in black with a large brimmed hat,” she began. “He’s hunched over a chessboard. He’s alone and doesn’t notice me. I can hear his heartbeat and it gets louder and faster. I can sense he’s becoming angry.”
Ultimately, this nightmare man hammers his fist down on the chessboard and splits the wood. “I have no idea what it means,” she confessed, “but it is terrifying and it’s odd that it keeps happening.”
As far as fiction goes, Leigh told Entertaining Options, “Vampire movies and books rarely disappoint me. It’s their seductive nature and their ability to either turn you or straight up kill you.”
For fun, Leigh loves to hike. She once hiked up Half Dome in Yosemite in the middle of the night – climbed up the cables in the darkness – just so she could witness the sunrise from the top. Leigh fondly regards this adventure as the greatest thing she’s ever done.
During the interview, Leigh mentioned that if she writes another book, it will be about her brother. When asked what Jared was like, she answered, “He was not perfect, but he tried to be a good person and he helped a lot of people in his lifetime. I don’t think I will ever fully get to know him and all that he did for others. We were very close growing up, but after college, I moved away and he built up friendships with people from across America. I only know of the strangers who reached out to me after his death and told me some amazing selfless acts he did. These people loved my brother so much that they decided to keep in touch with me. I recently received a gift from a Massachusetts woman I’ve never met, but who knew my brother.”
The Pine Barrens’ Devil is Leigh Paynter’s first book. Within these four chilling tales, she has managed to paint an atmospheric work of literary art that will draw comparisons to classic storytellers such as Washington Irving. Fall is the perfect time of year to take a stroll through her world… if you dare.