Where do story ideas come from? It’s a common question, but that doesn’t make it any easier to answer. One science fiction writer glibly answered a fan with “I get them mail-order from Poughkeepsie” (or so the story goes), and that’s where the name of my new, irregular series comes from.
I’ve got a story idea floating in my head, and it’s been there like a ghost in the attic for about three weeks, now.
In August, the Halloween candies started showing up in the grocery store; not so unusual for North America, but I live in Japan, where Halloween has been slowly gaining traction as a party holiday. If they could sell pumpkin-emblazoned cookies in May, they’d do it, but being a seasonal people, the average consumer would rebel. August is soon enough.
So, with my mind primed by visions of little ghosts and haunted houses on my favorite Pocky and Take-no-ko snacks, I started thinking consciously that it would be a good idea to write a bunch of ghost stories, and maybe collect them in a volume for October 2019.
To some extent, I’m a seasonal writer; yeah, sure, I can imagine a beach scene when the snow is falling down, but something in my heart rejects that scenario. I like to write fall stories in the autumn, winter stories when there’s snow on the ground, and spring stories when the landscape is that delicate, fresh green color.
A few weeks later, my YouTube feed threw a Lead Belly song called “In the Pines” into the mix. I’m really grateful to YouTube algorithms; 50 percent of the time I get garbage, 40 percent of the time I get relevant content, and about 10 percent of the time, I get something kind of weird, but oddly useful. That’s a very good percentage, especially for a mindless computer.
“In the Pines” is probably related to my YouTube ukulele habit, which is an interesting connection. Lead Belly seems about as far as you can get from a little cheerful Hawaiian plinky-plink, but it turns out it was right next door. I felt like I’d seen the song many times before, often in conjunction with Dolly Parton, but the day Lead Belly came up, I was finally ready to see it.
“In the Pines” is an old Appalachian folk song about a woman who winds up sleeping in the pine forest after her husband dies. There’s a lot of room for imagination in the song; some people think it’s about a ghost (and some people sing lyrics to reflect that), and I think it’s possible that the young woman could be meeting a lover after her abusive husband dies. It really depends on how the song is sung.
For my purposes, though, I want the ghost story. Lead Belly and Nirvana both sing the song as being about a poor woman who has lost her husband to a terrible railway accident, but the accusatory alternate title, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, is about controlling her body and her grief.
“My girl, my girl, don’t you lie to me. Where did you sleep last night?”
“In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines. I shivered the whole night through.”
This is also an important part of the story. A woman shows agency, she is rebuked. What happens next? I don’t know yet. I keep listening to different versions, and hoping to see the story unfold. Is she a ghost? Does she see a ghost? Who is asking her where she’s been? And who else is in the story? “My girl, my girl, don’t you lie to me.”
I’m still waiting for updates from Poughkeepsie, but it’s an interesting wait. In the meantime, I’ll be in the pines on a cold October night, listening to the cold wind blow.