Monday, November 14, 2016

The World is a Scary Place-Stories As Coping Mechanism

Years ago when Stephen King released his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, he spent some time on the topic of xenophobia and how a rise or fall in the popularity of horror films could be related to uneasiness within the nation. He correlated the number of monster and alien horror movies to the Cold War and the USA's citizenry dealing with such frightening concepts as bombs, possible Communist attacks, and the during- and after-effects of McCarthyism. Interestingly enough, the fear factor in the scary movies being released as entertainment (and what King considered to be a pressure-relief valve in troubled times) was two-fold: sometimes the monsters came from outside of our world, and just as (or more) horrifying, sometimes they came from within our own environment. For every alien attack on the Earth, there was another monster that was bred from radiation or other catalyst that originated on our own planet.

We're only two weeks past Halloween, and deep into the season of short days and long, dark nights, so perhaps it isn't fair to lay the uptick in horror movies being released during this time at the feet of our most recent election and attendant campaign season. Perhaps. The past decade, at least, and maybe longer than that, has seen a decided rise in horror stories, and not just in the movies. Stephen King first came to national attention in the '70's, and along with him were Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and (including him because I must) John Saul. Since the '70's, more writers have been taking on the topics of monsters as well as the supernatural. Vampire popularity is a sine wave, rising and falling but never quite going away altogether. Then there are the zombies, the werewolves, and thanks to M. Night Shyamalan who reintroduced the ghost story with The Sixth Sense, spirits, vengeful and otherwise, as well as demons, are a mainstay.

I know these are uneasy times on the home front (not to mention the rest of the global community) and so in light of King's observations, our current cornucopia of not only horror movies, but TV shows, books, and graphic novels is no surprise.

But I would venture to throw in a little bit of hope. With the onslaught of scary movies has also been a rise in the number of superhero flicks. The amount of hope generated by beings who have superpowers and use them to protect us mere mortals is both satisfying and a relief. Maybe as great a pressure-relief valve as the horror movies that give us a basically safe place to deal with fear.

These are unsettling times and it will be interesting to see what kinds of stories result from this uneasiness. I'll be looking forward to the ghost stories -but I'll also be looking forward to the superheroes. (And not just because the guys are always so hot!) While the ghost stories give me a place to deal with fear, the superheroes give me hope and usually, a bunch of laughs, too. We all cope the best way we know how. Ghosts and superheroes? I'm there.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Comfortable With the Dead?


One week ago was Halloween, and six days ago was All Saints' Day, or, in Mexico, The Day of the Dead. Jim and I are currently taking conversational Spanish classes, and our instructor, a very fun and funny gentleman named Rene, talked about The Day of the Dead a little bit in class. I've seen pictures of it and it's been featured in movies, but I don't know very much about it.

I know that Japanese culture also has its particular time to honor ancestors who have gone before, although the Obon festival lasts more than one day and usually happens in July or August.

Both traditions include visiting the cemetery and bringing offerings to relatives who no longer walk the earth. Sometimes meals are eaten there. The grave sites are also spruced up during the celebration.

And all of this got me thinking - are people of other cultures on to something that our western culture used to have but somehow lost? A little over a hundred years ago, people in this country just seemed more, well, "used to" the concept of death. Dead relatives were waked in their own homes. Portraits were taken, sometimes posing those no longer alive next to their living, breathing family members. Nowadays, portraits like that disturb the heck out of us - I admit it. Memento Mori portraits are something I generally avoid unless I'm being macabre or have a reason to look at them. But why is that?

We have separated ourselves from the idea of death to the point where I think our culture is obsessed with youth and the idea of living forever. We kind of ignore the fact that all of us are going to go at some point or other, and focusing on that is considered maudlin or depressing or any number of things, none of which are very good. Stephen King once joked about how separated we have become from death and how we can remedy that by suggesting field trips to an undertaker, rather like a fast food outing, where children could learn about what happens after death. He added in his typical dark humor that the highlight of the trip would be "the viewing of the McCorpse."

I went to my first wake when I was about seven and I was so overwhelmed (and not in a good way) by viewing the body up close and personally that I needed weeks to process the vision out of my head. I wasn't scared the way I was when I watched a horror movie. And I wasn't sad because I didn't know the person except by name. But the glimpse of a dead body in a casket stayed with me for a very long time and even years later just the sight of a casket, even closed, would bring everything back to me in unhappy fashion. I wonder if kids growing up with their great-grandparents being waked in their own homes didn't have a better handle on the reality of death.

I write about dead people a lot. It's my job and one I generally enjoy doing. On the other hand, writing what I do forces me to focus on dying, death, all attendant procedures and props (like wakes, funerals, gravestones, and the like) and what may (or may not) happen after one has shuffled off Shakespeare's mortal coil. And sometimes I'm fine with it, and sometimes, being a product of my culture, I become depressed.

But in the end, death is just another part of life, right? Someone else's passing, our own - no one gets out of here alive, as they say. I don't know if I can pull off Robert Louis Stevenson's "Glad did I live and gladly die," but I sure hope to exit in peace and with grace.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Ghost Tour, Naperville - and An Announcement

 Free to Use & Public Domain Jack O’ Lantern Clip Art - Page 2

Since it's Halloween, it seemed only appropriate to write about the ghost tour that Jim and I took with great friends Terri Reid (and spouse) and Donnie Light (and spouse) and a bunch of other buddies. We went on the ghost tour featuring the nearby town of Naperville, Illinois. And it was a blast.

Our guide was a very dramatic gentleman, ghost hunter, and story-teller named Kevin, and he was aided by a sweetheart named Arielle. Between the two of them, we were guided to different sites close to downtown Naperville to learn about tragedies from over a hundred years ago all the way through one that just happened within the last ten or so years. All of which gave rise to a haunted location. 

There was a monstrous train crash that took over forty lives, and some of those poor folks are still wandering the area where they died, totally bewildered about what happened to them. There was a residential-type house, one that once was a thriving business, that is occupied by a very dark entity. There was a little girl who haunts a grade school, although no one knows very much about her story: just that she turns up as a pink-clad little thing in pictures. I know Terri Reid is probably writing about this adventure over at her blog and undoubtedly doing a far better job than I can!

But there was one thing that Kevin said that still echoes in me because I (and Michael Penfield) know that he is right. Your house is haunted. He went on to talk about the footsteps you hear overhead when you know you're home alone, about the sounds of things moving that can't be explained by a draft or an open window, about the chill you sometimes get when you're in the middle of a heated home. Ghosts are everywhere, he claims. And Michael Penfield would agree with him. And actually, so would my mother. (Having your own mother tell you that ghosts are everywhere when you're growing up in a haunted house is quite the treat, let me tell you!) I know the skeptics would mock this, but inside of me, I know this is true. They are everywhere, and why shouldn't they be? They don't have the laws of physical existence limiting them any longer. And energy is everywhere.

That said, if you want to know more about Naperville and its ghost stories, I would encourage going on one of these walking tours. They're fun. They're educational. And unfortunately, they won't resume again until the spring. But keep them in mind!

As for the announcement, well, I would like you all to know that Cassie and Michael have a new adventure available at Amazon. It's shorter, a novella of about 30,000 words, but it is a ghost story and it does involve using their particular gifts to help resolve a particular type of problem. The story is titled A Trace of Ghost, and I hope you enjoy it. Review me, please, if you do!

Hunting Spirits is also available again, with different cover art. This one is a short ghost story and involves a teen named AJ Podalak, the daughter of a famous ghost hunter, and a vengeful spirit. If you haven't read this already, enjoy!

Monday, October 24, 2016

So, Clowns


Since this is the month for all things scary, I decided to write about something I have been scared of nearly all my life. This rates right up there with wax figures, maybe even higher. Clowns.

Just for the heck of it, I looked up a history on clowns and I guess white-face clown makeup began with a gentleman named Joseph Grimaldi. Clown humor is based on slapstick or physical antics, along with ridiculous or foolish reactions to situations.

I have never in my life found clowns to be funny.

When I was about three or four, my parents took our family to a circus. I have a dim recollection of crowds of people, and of the packed-in seating. I remember that we were placed in the front section, and that is crucial. Because most of what I remember is that we were close enough for interaction, and at some point a clown came up and got in my face.

I'm sure that is not what this poor man was trying to do. Undoubtedly, he saw a little kid and decided to try playing with her to make her laugh. So he got close and began making faces at me, probably going for a belly laugh or at least a good-natured giggle.

What he got instead was a flat-out shriek. I think that may be the only time in my life that I ever really screamed. And I mean scream. I could sense his dismay at my reaction, but since his face was completely covered with thick greasepaint make-up, a ridiculous nose, and painted on mouth and eyebrows, he certainly couldn't convey that to me. I was getting dismay messages mixed with a happy-face expression and that made no sense at all to my little four-year-old brain.

Also, his face didn't fricking move. No movement whatsoever through all that cosmetic layering. The only things that did move were his eyes. His eyes were totally alive, but his face -and although I was pretty young at the time, I did understand this-  was totally dead. No movement. No expression except for clown-face. Nothing. I don't remember if he tried talking to me. I wouldn't have heard him anyway.

Ever since then, I have had an automatic reaction of both fear and revulsion when it comes to clowns. I don't like seeing them in circuses or parades. I don't think I would enjoy their performances in rodeos. And I know for sure I would never own clown art. (There is a place up north in my beloved Door County that advertises clown paintings: SERIOUSLY????)

So I know why I fear clowns. The news stories of clowns beckoning to children, inviting them to come into the woods, brings up a hunting instinct in me I never knew I had. When it was announced that John Gacy used to dress up as a clown, I couldn't help thinking that of course he did. And then, no surprise, Stephen King unleashed Pennywise on the world and that was that.

One good thing, I share this fear with a pretty awesome dude:

In the meantime, I'd like to know what about them scares everyone else who shares this fear. Or maybe even the phobia.They're supposed to be funny and playful? Why are they terrifying?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Would You Spend the Night Here?

The idea of spending the night in a haunted house on purpose or on a dare probably dates back centuries. Well, maybe not, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did. Haunted houses and ghosts have long been considered entertainment. Mary Shelley's blockbuster Frankenstein came about when she and several other guests at Lord Byron's estate challenged each other to write the scariest story possible. And that was back in the early nineteenth century.

These days, paranormal investigators spend nights in haunted houses on a regular basis during the course of their hunts for evidence of the spectral. Actively seeking out paranormal evidence as opposed to locking oneself in a bedroom with the covers drawn protectively over one's head is undoubtedly different than the original dares of sleeping in a haunted house. Nevertheless, there are so many reality shows based on overnights in haunted or disturbed surroundings that daring someone to do just that has probably lost some of its original luster and sting.

So I started thinking about that: would I spend the night in a haunted house? Two answers came to mind. First off, if you consider the house where I grew up, I have spent countless nights in a haunted house. Secondly, my answer would probably be "no, thank you." I could say been there, done that, but it's more accurate to say that I'm too much of a chicken to do it. Truly. The idea of running into a ghost terrifies me, even though I write about them, research them, watch shows about them, enjoy stories about them, and even live with a family who have all seen them. No matter how I look at it, ghosts scare the dickens out of me as much as I am fascinated by them.

But a haunted house isn't the only venue on the list of possibilities. Would you spend the night in a cemetery? In the Egyptian Hall of a museum, surrounded by mummies and sarcophogi? How about in a funeral home? Or a morgue (even empty)? Creepy ideas, right? 

Well, here's my line in the sand. Overnighting in a haunted place is one thing. But I absolutely would not be able to spend the night in a wax museum. Of all the everyday places that I find frightening, wax museums, or any place having those lifelike figures, are the absolute no-go for moi. Mannequins don't bother me. But realistic, usually historical figures done up in wax and accurate down to the last detail are another story. In my book, Dead Voices, there is a scene where Cassie takes Michael along to a haunted bed-and-breakfast and he refuses to even set foot in the place, due to what he can see. That's about how I feel when it comes to wax museums.

My family took a road trip to Canada when I was maybe five years old, or so. It was a long drive and while I know we saw Niagara Falls, and took a guided hiking tour and boat tour through some sort of forested canyon with a river running through it, the thing that stuck with me the most was the wax museum we visited. I can't even tell you what city it was in, whether Montreal, Quebec, or Toronto. (Sad, I realize, but I was only five.) At any event, I remember life-size, life-like figures everywhere with eyes that followed your every movement and faces that looked to be on the brink of becoming animated. Maybe even saying something. I think I held one of my parents' hands the entire time.

I didn't think much about that afterward, at least not consciously. But I do remember that when a smaller version of The London Royal Wax Museum opened in Old Town in Chicago, I would detour around it. If someone suggested going there, I would come up with an alternative. I never set foot in the place and I know it is no longer there, which is fine with me.

On the other hand, Jim and I took a trip to the British Isles to celebrate his completion of a long-term job in Texas, and the last stop on the tour we booked was at Warwick Castle. The castle itself is well-preserved and beautifully decorated. It's kind of like a Renaissance Faire, but on steroids. People in periodic clothing abound: women in floor-length dresses and men in jerkins and leggings were everywhere. We were even lucky enough to see the actual firing of the castle's trebuchet. That was fun! But the interior of the castle, at the time we visited, also boasted "living scenes" from the middle ages. "Living scenes" meant that not only did they have a stable, for instance, but they also included a horse and a blacksmith. And much to my dismay, these beings were made of wax. Every entire living scene included wax figures. Worse, they had animated them, so that the horse would turn its head or twitch an ear. The figures of people were breathing, for petesake. And the lighting was a lot dimmer than I would have wanted.

I rushed Jim through the entire exhibit like a whirlwind, never mind that he wanted to stop and read the plaques or displayed descriptions at each scene, or that he might want to check out the detail at every tableau. I was trying to get out before any of those things not only turned its head or blinked but also stepped over the cords that roped off each display and started coming after me. I mean, they were all life-sized and some of them were armed. I didn't want to be around when they came to life. I didn't want Jim stuck in there when that happened, either.

He didn't say anything about how rapidly we took in that one part of the castle, but I did feel compelled to explain myself once we were safely outside in the sunlight. I had actually forgotten how much wax figures bothered me, and now that I've seen them as an adult, the memory has no chance of fading away. If Jim ever wants to go to Madame Tussaud's, he is definitely on his own.

So of all the scary places people might be dared to spend the night, if I wasn't alone you might be able to get me to stay at a museum, or a cemetery. Maybe even a morgue. But a wax museum? Not on your or my life. I don't care what anyone says about them: those places are not safe. And those figures are not just pretend. 

And I knew that even before seeing anything featuring Vincent Price or written by  Rod Serling.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Book I Indeed Did Finish


Some time after I published last week's blog post, I sat down and finished the book, Lisey's Story. It is a hard story: hard to get into, hard to read, and definitely hard to look away from, in the end. It's brilliant. And I will probably never read it again.

Lisey's Story is about a woman who is two years past the death of her beloved husband Scott Landon, an acclaimed, successful, and wealthy author. Note that this book is dedicated to Mr. King's wife, Tabitha. I think this one is autobiographical in certain aspects, and also touches again on the theme of an adoring but absolutely insane fan. I hate to think of what sort of insanity has visited Mr. King's life because of his success.

During the course of this book, we learn that Scott's books are sourced from a real and magical place, a place that he can access and one that he teaches Lisey to find. If the word "magical" gives rise to images of good wizards and unicorns, rainbows and fairies, also keep in mind that this book is written by Stephen King, after all. The magic is there in beauty and lusciously scented flowers and healing waters, but there are also beasts, poison, and at least one huge and deadly monster.

Monsters are a theme throughout this book. Scott comes from a family of them, and this is slowly revealed to the reader as Lisey begins the work of cleaning up her husbands papers and starts to remember, with reluctance, what he has told her about the family that both birthed him and nearly killed him. There is a monster of a fan that tries to end Scott's life. And there is the monster who takes up where that deranged fan left off.

Lisey, in the mean time is dealing with her own inner demons: grief, loss, pain, rage, and the realization that there is an answering sort of madness in her own family that will match up to that in Scott's. And that madness is both death and salvation.

I had a hard time reading this book. For me, it's unlike anything else I've ever read by Mr. King, and that's saying something, since his works span quite a gamut of extraordinary and paranormal premises. Still, in the end, dang him, he was talented enough and skilled enough to pull me into the story and keep me hanging on until the end. I couldn't look away. But this wasn't a train wreck. This is amazing, gripping writing from one of the biggest talent's of our age. It takes his kind of magic to pull off that sort of trick: keep a reader hooked enough to see the story through. Like Lisey, in the end I had no choice but to reach the inescapable conclusion. If you've read the book, you'll understand when I say that Mr. King sets the reader off on a bool. Does the prize at the end make it worth the  journey? As hard as it is to realize, I would have to say that the answer is "yes." Of course, I'm a fan of Stephen King. Not his Number One fan, but a fan.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. And I'd be interested in hearing from anyone else who has read this and who bought into its spell. I'd love to compare notes.

Would I ever read this again? Probably not.

Will I ever forget it? Never.

Monday, October 3, 2016

That Book You Can't Finish

I grew up with the idea that if I started reading a book, I absolutely needed to finish it. I used to think it was a Catholic grade school thing, but I've run into lots of non-Catholics who have the same, well, neurosis. If I start reading this, I need to finish it. Even if I hate it. Even if I borrowed it from the library and didn't spend any money on it. Even if I probably won't remember it three hours after I finish it. Or worse, even if I'll remember it for the rest of my life because the experience of reading it was so horrible. Anyone else out there have this internal argument going on from time to time? A show of hands?

At the moment, I am almost in the middle of a book by one of my favorite writers, Mr. Stephen King. And I'm struggling with it. I borrowed it from the library, so if I don't finish it, no worries about paying for something that was never used. My husband tried it first but said he was having trouble getting into it, so we swapped books (I had a Longmire book waiting for me) and now he's enjoying himself immensely with Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear, and I'm struggling with a 509-page King novel. 

I was in sixth grade when I ran across the first book I absolutely knew I could NEVER FINISH. And I even tried twice. It's a very popular book that was made into a very popular movie and yet I could never get past the first one-third of it. I tried every trick I already knew to get myself to read it in entirety. I tried it from the beginning twice, as noted. I read the end and tried going backwards to see  how the protagonist got to the point where the story ended. Nope, that was a no-go also. I picked spots randomly in the middle of the book and tried to go both forwards and backwards and that didn't help either. And I guess that's about when I realized I would never finish the dang thing. And, boy, did I feel guilty. I "confessed" to people from time to time that I never read the whole book, and found to my surprise, I think, that no one called me a sinner over the issue. Most of them either said, "Really? I love that book!" or "I never read it.", as well as "I never read it, but I saw the movie." 

And I began to realize that maybe it was okay if I didn't finish that novel. The writer was excellent: her word accuracy and her descriptions were amazing. But none of that was enough to get me past the "I really hate this main character" problem I was having.

Fast forward to where I am now, and I routinely stop reading a book if it's not reaching me. I figure that 1) time is short, and there are a ton of books I want/need to read so I'm not going to battle through one that's never going to work for me, and 2) I apparently am not on the same vibe or wavelength as the author for this to work for me. And actually, being honest with myself about that has helped me when one of my books receives a review where the reader is pretty much saying that: "This book was okay, nothing to write home about" and "Not my cup of tea." (The horrid ones where the reader simply writes how dreadful the work is but doesn't explain why are a separate issue.)

So now I'm looking at this Stephen King book and thinking, will this be the one King novel I never quite finish? It's as well-written as anything he's ever done. Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised if this one wasn't somewhat autobiographical as well. But there is a strange, discordant vibration to this one with notes that are hitting me just to the left of my own true perfect pitch. And I don't know why that is. I'm certainly curious enough to want to know what's actually going on, and why. But I don't know if the curiosity I have at this point is enough to see it through. And that's weird for me because he's one of my favorite authors. Still, that doesn't mean we'll always agree on everything. For example, I know he writes -or at least used to- to AC/DC and while I write to music, AC/DC isn't on my playlist. More power to both of us, for finding the music that nudges our muses along.

I'll take a few more cracks at the work, but I may not make it all the way to Oz on this one. And that's okay. Fortunately, Stephen King has a ton of books out there and I haven't read all of them. Maybe it's not such a horrible thing if this one slips past me just a little.