Today is the middle day of Obon, a three-day Japanese holiday honoring the dead. Ghost stories are traditional, because this is often the hottest, stickiest time of year, and the chills you get from spooky thrills are said to feel cool and refreshing.
I live in Japan now, but I grew up in Nebraska, and went to school there. I lived in one of the oldest dorms of my university, but I was in the new wing, which was built in the 1950s. No ghosts there, but we heard about ghost stories in the halls right next door.
The one I remember in particular was told to me in a room that had been converted to a TV room. Every floor had a TV room, which seemed to be a regular room that had been converted to communal viewing.
One of the things we’re taught as studious craft writers is that the stakes are important. Stakes, well-defined at the outset and referred to as needed during the course of story, can keep the reader reading, eager to see if (or more likely, in the romance genre, how) our characters get their hearts’ desires.
But this week, I binge-watched season one of BBC’s Ghosts, and now I’m wondering if high stakes are actually a distraction from a cozy story.
Katie had snuggled into her afghan on the sofa, her gray and black Tabby nestled under her knees, and her laptop perched on them. Pete was on Zoom and it was Halloween – exactly one year after the terrifying events of 2019.
“Babe, it kills me that you’re there alone,” Pete said.
Kate pulled the afghan a little closer to her neck, and Tabby mewed in protest. “Don’t you dare come over. You’ve got chemo on Tuesday.”
“But if you’ve got no symptoms . . . you’ve been so careful.”
“Pete, stop it. Sky tested positive five days ago.” And she wasn’t going to tell Pete about the fever that had sent her to the sofa. He didn’t need that as well.
“Jesus, Sky too? I thought it was only Jessie. This fucking year, I swear . . . .”
There was nothing Kate could say to that; fortunately, Zoom let her nod along in sympathy. It had been a roller coaster of a year – her high school boyfriend, Jake, had turned out to be a cult leader and raised seven demons of hell last Hallow’s Eve. She’d had to drop a hay bale on him to save the tri-city area, and in her grief and guilt, she’d hooked up with Pete at Christmas and was in love by New Year’s Day. Pete was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day (Friday, 5 p.m. – all the bad news in 2020 had dropped on Friday at 5 p.m.), and her mother died from complications of eye surgery . . . shot in the eye by a rubber bullet on the third of July, dead on September fourth.
Tabby crawled out from under the afghan and curled herself around Kate’s neck.
Pete said, “Hey, Tabby, Tabby!” Tabby looked at him, ears forward. She liked Pete almost as much as Kate did.
The Zoom crackled and spit, and Tabby launched herself off Kate, and cowered under the side table across the room. “Hey, Pete, your camera is off. Pete?”
No answer. Which was par for the course. With her connection, she lost her Zoom companions at least three times a week. The static, like an old-fashioned television on an empty station, was new, though.
“Katie, Katie, Katie.” A horrible sound, a man’s voice was heard through the hisses on the screen, vaguely reminiscent of somebody calling a cat. Only Jake had called her Katie.
“Pete, is that you? What’s going on?”
“Not Pete, Katie.” There was a long pause, and Katie felt chills going up her spine and down her upper arms in marching rows of goosebumps. “Pete.” This was almost spit out, like the person behind the Zoom camera had bitten into the pit of a cherry. Another long pause, and Kate sought to organize her scrambling thoughts, but they eluded her. They ran for all the corners of her mind, leaving nothing but a blank space and this snowy screen. “Why, Kate? Why me? Not . . . .” Kate was frozen. “ . . . you?”
Ideas suddenly flooded into her head. She frantically hit the trackpad, trying to close the window, stop the program. She pressed on the power button once, twice, three times, and the third time for a long 15 seconds. Silence from the screen for this minute, but as soon as her finger released the power button, an evil laugh issued through the hissing fog of the computer.
She slammed the laptop shut, and instinct prompted her to roll off the sofa, crawl under the coffee table, and her butt caught on it, so she crawled across the floor, bringing the table along with her. Part of her mind wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, but the other part was wrapped up in fear.
The ceiling fan dropped, glancing off the coffee table, and knocking the laptop off the sofa. It flew open, still a screen with her desktop, and a Zoom app of black and white static fuzz. “I missed you, Katie.” Another long 15 seconds of static. “Come with me.”
“No!” Kate screamed. She tried to back away from the damned computer, when the oddest thing happened. A new person had been invited to the Zoom. It . . . it looked like her mother’s Zoom name. She crawled toward the laptop.
Little chunks of plaster rained down upon her, but the ceiling fan had brought down most of it when it fell. She allowed the new person to join the call. It couldn’t be her mother . . . it must be whoever bought her mom’s old desktop.
Two windows of static, but the one with her mom’s name was pink, and less hissy. It sounded almost as though someone was playing a theremin, or an electric harp with only three high strings. Whoo-whee-woooooo. “Kate.” It was her mother, she knew it. “I’m here.”
“Noooooooooooooooo.” It had to be Jake. Kate began mumbling the spell her friend had taught her that Hallow’s Eve. “I won’t stand for you running around. I won’t stand for you putting me down. I am mine. I am mine. I am mine.” The hissing of static became more quiet, and then winked out . . . exactly like the old tube TV her mom had owned, not at all like the digital Zoom window. Pete’s dear face showed on the screen again.
“Kate, darling. What happened?”
“I . . . I’m not sure.” She could see her face on the screen, weirdly reversed as it always was on a Zoom call, but now covered with plaster dust. She wasn’t ready to throw the coffee table off her back yet.
“Kate, who are you talking to on the other screen?”
Kate looked at the pink screen, now pulsating with burgundy and returning to a warm, comforting color. She could barely hear the strains of the three notes. “Love you, Kate.” It was a low whisper, and another long pause, as if gathering the energy to say a few more words. “I’ll take care of him.”
And just like that, Zoom chimed and informed her that LindaT&J had left the call.
“Kate, are you OK? Dammit, I will come over.”
“No, it’s OK, Pete. I think it’s done. Stay on the Zoom with me for a little longer? It’s almost midnight?”
“Sure, Kate-my-dear. I’ll stay on all night.” Tabby picked her delicate way through the wreckage of the ceiling fan, and unerringly pointed her butt at the screen. Pete laughed and Kate giggled and pulled the cat under the coffee table. It was going to be all right. Somehow, everything was going to be all right.
Oh, wave your magic wand, and let flights of fancy give you wing! (Agnes Guppy-Volckman flies over London with a pen in hand.) (Image Via Wikimedia)
When I was a pre-teen, I haunted the libraries of my school and town for books about the unknown and supernatural – Salem witch trials, Atlantis, pyramids . . . I loved them all, and it seemed somewhat surprising that they’d actually be publicly available in my small town. But they were – I guess stories of the odd and eldritch are popular everywhere.
I can’t remember which book talked about automatic writing – the idea that a spirit or your subconscious could work through your body to write meaningful sentence without conscious control of your hand.
Messages could be spelled out with a Ouija board, but some spiritualists used just a loosely-held pencil on a piece of paper. Wikipedia cites William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925) as a source for this method. In the case of dowsing (searching for an object or resource with a hand-held rod), Barrett thought that the individual’s muscle twitches were responsible for the movement, but that the individual’s unconscious would pick up information through clairvoyance and guide the ideomotor responses. That’s pretty much the theory my half-remembered book put forth.
Some spirits writing messages to the living are often frivolous and write nothing to purpose; others write mysteries hidden in half-riddles. But, there are others who wrote whole books, or at least, so the writers claimed.
Pearl Curran, a housewife in St. Louis in the 1910s, channeled a spirit called Patience Worth, who wrote poetry and two novels through Pearl. This fascinating article from The Smithsonian online details Pearl’s short life and acquaintance with Patience, but as a minor celebrity, there are plenty of contemporary sources that describe her method.
Pearl used a Ouija board, and at first, spelled out each word with the planchette. Eventually, though, the tool proved unnecessary, and just touching the planchette would provoke contact and a recitation. Her husband often took down the words spoken.
There was quite a bit of controversy about Patience’s reality. She didn’t share details of her “life” readily, and she avoided predicting the future. (Ruth Montgomery was a journalist, and popular automatic writer, in the 1960s and 70s who predicted that Atlantis would rise in 1999 due to a polar shift . . . and had to write another book in 1999 pushing back the timeline. So, either her spirit guide was imaginary, or completely unreliable.) In this way, Pearl was able to avoid having Patience being definitively proven false. Many mundane reasons were produced to explain the Pearl/Patience connection, including a split personality.
The Smithsonian article posits that the real truth was in a short story written by Pearl Curran (not her spirit guide) about a young lady who pretends to have a spirit guide in order to get more fun out of life. Perhaps that’s all Pearl wanted, too. At any rate, the flights of fancy attracted the attention of the nation during a world war and an influenza epidemic, which is more than a lot of would-be authors can boast.
I am not proposing that anyone try automatic writing – do your research if you are interested and decide for yourself. I think 2020 is a year full of anxiety and mental instability, anyway, and playing around with it could lead to unhappy confrontations with one’s psyche. I mean, a fly lands on a debater’s head, and the internet went crazy for it. OMG, omen! What would happen if your automatic writing was eerily on point? Never mind there’s at least a 20 percent chance of ANYTHING happening this year. I would be surprised but not shocked if Atlantis made a late appearance and apologized for keeping us waiting.
However, if you are writing ghost stories this month, automatic writing can be a fun driver of the plot, and a way to provide information your characters don’t consciously realize. Fiction is a safe way to play with weird stuff. Enjoy your writing time!
The nights are getting shorter, darker and colder, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. We just passed Halloween (previously the Celtic festival of Samhain), when the barrier between our world and the realm of ghosts and spirits melts away and supernatural types return from the grave to threaten our orderly existence.
In other words, ‘tis the season for ghost stories and terrible tales.
We dipped a toe into the icy water here recently with our tag-team Scottish flash fiction adventure featuring the restless ghosts of tragic Alanis McLeish and her twin baby daughters (go here for Kay’s fabulous final instalment and links to the rest of the tale).
That tempted me to re-read Jenny Crusie’s Maybe This Time, her smart, scary homage to Henry James’s influential 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, complete with isolated, crumbling gothic setting; orphaned children; sinister housekeeper; and murderous ghosts. Thank heavens for the Crusie-heroine-turned-temporary-governess.
Maybe This Time whetted my appetite for Victorian horror. Click here for an interesting feature in Atlas Obscura explaining why the Victorian era was such a boom time for scary stories. It seems to be linked to the rise of the periodical press which fuelled a demand for genre fiction, combined with a period of rapid technological advancement in which things which had previously seemed impossible suddenly became real and normal.
Then yesterday, with uncanny serendipity, I found Victorian Tales of Terror, a recently republished anthology of carefully curated period fiction edited by Hugh Lamb. There are sixteen spine-chilling stories by famous (Dickens, de Maupassant) and little-known authors, male and female, English, European and American.
I see . . . I see . . . I see Humphrey Bogart in your future! “Here’s looking at you, kid.” (Slumps over.) Image via Wikipedia Commons
Yesterday, we took a look at our influences from the past with the “Who are Your Literary Parents” game. Today, let’s move our past into the future with a new game from Bitter Script Reader, who says: “Good news! Your next pilot’s been ordered to series before you’ve written it.
“The catch: it’s pre-cast with your celebrity crushes when you were 13. So how are you building a show around that?”
Good news! Your next pilot’s been ordered to series before you’ve written it.
The catch: it’s pre-cast with your celebrity crushes when you were 13. So how are you building a show around that?
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 Continue reading →
Do you enjoy a good ghost story? They’re not usually my thing, but around this time of year they creep up on me whether I will or no. Like yesterday, when I found myself drawn into Michaeline’s excellent and satisfying re-telling of the story of Old Betty and Raw Head the razorback hog.
That set me to wondering what’s the best ghost story I ever read. Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing won by a mile. In case you’re wondering, yes, it is by the author of Watership Down. He wrote a number of other novels in various genres, but as far as I’m aware this is his only scary story. It may not be the most famous ghost story I’ve ever read, but it’s the one that had the most profound and lasting effect on me.
The Girl in a Swing was published in 1980 so it must be more than thirty years since I first read it, and I can still remember how it made me feel. It’s not a slam-bam horror story. There are no chainsaws or buckets of blood. It’s a story of ordinary people living normal lives in a present-day world. It’s very low-key and the pace is deliberately slow. The writing is quality, as you’d expect, and little by little, it drew me in until I was completely hooked. Richard Adams did a brilliant job of making me care about the characters, and at the end I was horrified, scared, shocked, moved and very sad.
I don’t like sad or scary fiction, and since ghosts are a consequence of death and are usually associated with violence, unhappiness, revenge, terrible secrets and unfinished business, they’re not a natural choice for me.
Despite the caveat above, every October I get caught up in the atmosphere of approaching darkness, and ubiquitous Halloween/All Souls/Samhain imagery.
Yesterday I was looking for something seasonal but not too scary to read, and thinking that unlike vampires, demons or shifters, ghosts don’t really lend themselves to romantic fiction. A furred, fanged or soulless hero is one thing, but an incorporeal one?
I asked Mr. Google, and to my surprise, I discovered that Goodreads has a 95-book list called Ghostly Romance.
Haunted hotel? Stare down those ghosts and turn them into story fodder! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
So, my travels took me to The E— Hotel, and based on some observations, you could totally bring some ghosts to your next fictional hotel stay.
5. A visit to the lap pool is . . . refreshing, but a bit creepy. It’s tucked away in the basement, and as you walk around and around, you notice there’s one spot in the pool that’s a little dark in color, and the current runs a little swifter. It gets darker and deeper the longer you walk around and around, and then you realize, you are walking widdershins. Time to get out of the pool. Let’s try the one outdoors.
4. Ah, that’s better. Starlight! Beautiful summer night, with the heat lingering in the concrete. No lifeguard on duty, of course, but it’s not too deep. You Continue reading →