Monday, April 27, 2015

The Dead Crowd

Some time last October or November, exactly the right time of year, someone put up an Internet article about old-fashioned family portraits where at least one of the people in the picture was dead. Being as morbidly curious as the next person, I immediately clicked through the slide show (all 17 or so pictures) and played "spot-the-dead-person" in each of the pictures. That's not necessarily as easy as it sounds, by the way. For one thing, the dead person frequently had his or her eyes open. Also, the article went on to explain how the photographers at that time used any variety of braces and supports so that the deceased person could be posed in a sitting or even standing position. They even showed some behind-the-scenes shots of a no-longer-living person being propped up in a brace before the portrait was taken. YIKES! TMI! TMI! my brain was screaming.

But I kept on reading and looking anyway.

And being maybe more morbid than the next person, I finished the article and bookmarked it. I even went back to it a few times to look at the pictures. I mean, by this time, everyone in those pictures is dead and gone, but gazing on the face of the one who had already departed at the time of the photo shoot was fascinating to me. I have no idea why.

It wasn't until I decided to share the article with Jim that it began to bother me. Now, my husband has a master's degree in structural engineering. This is a man who LIVES applied physics and converses knowledgeably and unfailingly about things like shear loads and core borings with the use of free-body diagrams and all sorts of views and elevations. In other words, he spends probably most of his waking hours in a world of hard-core science. Also, he just thinks like that. I mean, who else would  bother to tell his date how much actual money she spent on each individual Lifesaver in the roll she just purchased? I didn't ask, he just volunteered that off the cuff in case I wanted to know the price I had paid per unit. 

So about a week after I had bookmarked that article and told him about it, probably ad nauseum, I finally dragged him into my office and showed him what I was talking about. And my husband, man of science, looked at the first three pictures and said "I don't want to see anymore." And clicked out of the article.

I did not see that coming. "Really?" I asked. "This is bothering you? Why?" I was totally surprised by his reaction.

He really didn't get any further than telling me that the whole thing was basically weirding him out. 

About two days later, I began to wish I had never showed the pictures to him. I know I have a hyperactive imagination. It's part of my mental make-up and also necessary to my profession. But a couple of days after my husband's unexpected reaction, I began to feel those dead people in my office. Now, I know how silly that may sound, but when I would be home alone, even during the day, and at the opposite end of our little ranch house, --for instance standing in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator-- I would feel them reaching out to me from my office. I could feel them reaching out to me, looking for me, maybe just short of coming for me.

I tried to ignore that, of course. Just being silly, I'd think. Just my imagination working overtime, and not in a good way (which is often the case.)  But I began to dread entering my own office to get any work done. When I did, I felt like there was a crowd of them around me. I began to think about deleting the bookmark, but also felt like they really didn't want me to do that.

So for about a week, I had this little cloud, maybe all in my head, maybe not?, hanging around me. And with it came a confusion of possible choices: delete the article? Keep it? Stay out of my office? Work with that crowd hovering around me? Worst of all, random images of some of the pictures kept popping into my head at odd moments. (Like now, while I'm writing this, for instance.) After having my own private, little freak-out about it, I finally found it in me to open my list of bookmarks, highlight the article, and punch the delete key. And almost immediately my office lightened up.

I shared the story with my nephew the following Thanksgiving (the nephew who recommends movies like The Conjuring or The Taking of Deborah Logan: you know, cheerful things like that) and he just nodded his head and remarked how he could see that happening.

The whole event left me more than unsettled. I won't soon forget those pictures; those dead faces.

And I'll bet neither will Cassie Valentine when something along this line happens to her. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The (Non)Function of the Skeptic in a Supernatural Story

Before I released the book Haunted to kick off my Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series, a fellow writer who read the manuscript asked me how I could write a story where none of the characters doubted the supernatural. She found it unrealistic that no one in the story, especially the adults, questioned the idea that ghosts even exist, let alone that someone could be communicating with the dead. Her question took my by surprise, although I guess it shouldn't have.

It's not that I don't know skeptics and disbelievers in my own life. I think it's probably that I am more likely to spend time with those who share my beliefs, even if just a little. I also don't talk about supernatural concerns when surrounded by people who don't believe in these things anyway. I'm not trying to convert anyone to my way of thinking and I don't like being mocked. I also don't like feeling I need to defend my private beliefs, so it's easier just not to say a word in this direction.

But since the question had come up, I reread my manuscript in light of what my fellow writer had said, and in the end, I decided to go with the story the way I had written it. Part of it was that it still rang true to me, even after she had raised the thought.

The other part of it is purely about the story structure itself. All of us know books and movies where one of the subplots -or maybe even the whole plot- revolves around the haunted or troubled protagonist trying to convince his or her friend, relative, lover, spouse, etc, that what is going on is very real. As a writer and a reader, I kind of, well, loathe that device. I feel like it sucks energy from the real story, which is supernatural, and wastes time and the reader's goodwill. Unless the point of the book is to watch a character move from utter disbelief to total immersion into the paranormal, the whole there's-a-reasonable-explanation-for-what-is-happening thing just feels like a very tired cliche to me. 

While I understand that having a nonbeliever slow down the main character's quest, or throw a wrench in the works, or raise a needed complication, is a workable story pacing technique, I prefer a workaround to that entire concept. I get impatient with the whole "Please, you've got to believe me!" scenarios and wind up shouting at the TV "They're never going to believe you! They're never going to get it! Go find a fellow believer and take care of your problem without this person!" Of course, that never happens -the TV never listens to me, dang it- but I always feel irked when I watch a scene like that. 

I hope that everyone who reads this little blog also reads my hero, Stephen King. I have read quite a bit of him -not as much as Jim has, but quite a bit- and I don't remember running into that particular plot device in ANY of the books I've read. I figure if Mr. King doesn't need to waste the reader's time and energy on such a worn-out (and irritating) plot device, then I won't either. None of the stories I read over and over, whether it be Stephen King, Noel Hynd, Richard Peck, or any of my other fave supernatural and horror writers, ever includes The Official Disbeliever.

Perhaps the disbeliever is supposed to be the character that doubtful readers can identify with. Well, if that's the case, why this person reading a horror story anyhow? If none of this is ever going to feel real to the skeptical reader, then maybe said reader should give up horror and paranormal, and focus instead on the mainstream/general fiction genre, or even nonfiction.

Okay, rant over. I am happy to report that most of the reviews posted to Amazon about my work are from people who are happy to believe, if just for the length of the story. Even the negative reviews I have (and I do have those, believe me) have not been about skepticism, so perhaps this blog piece is preaching to the choir. At any event, now you know why you won't find any true non-believing characters in my work. I may not always succeed, but I prefer finding different ways to pace the flow of each tale other than relying on the old skeptic in the supernatural story.

Monday, April 13, 2015

An Ounce of Precaution

Some years ago, a woman I knew gave me a present, something that she considered an even exchange for a small present I had given her months earlier.

I am a martial arts geek. I studied TaeKwon Do during high school and college, leaving classes behind only when my life took a big turn into married life. I practiced on my own when I could no longer attend class because it was something I truly loved and something I knew enough to be able to do alone. After my children had become adults, I stumbled across a class in Medieval Long Sword being offered at our community college. It turned out that the instructors belong to a group called The Chicago Swordplay Guild (feel free to google them -they're amazing) and so for some years, until our life again took a big turn, my husband and I learned what we could about Italian longsword, single sword, dagger, and grappling, with an occasional foray into pole ax and spear. (Note: this is not re-enactment; this is western martial arts.)

All of this is background to the above-mentioned exchange of presents. The woman I met had joined the Guild, and she and I were building a friendship. During the course of this, I gave her a little hand-held self-defense tool that I was handing out to all my female relatives and friends at that time. I think every girl, every woman, should know how to defend herself.

And then this woman gave me her own idea of protection: a St. Benedict medal. Even though I was raised Catholic, I had no idea what the medal was for. She told me it was to ward off evil. I have since looked into this and found that it is considered to be a medal to repel the devil. There is an inscription on the back that actually says as much. It has also been in widespread use for centuries among Catholics and other Christian religions for this purpose. I never knew.

At any event, she knew I was into ghost stories and the paranormal, and she figured this would be good protection for me, so she gave one to me and one to my husband. Since that time, I've even seen the medal featured on one of my paranormal reality shows as a viable form of protection.

So I spent yesterday watching some of my DVR'd paranormal shows, and last night, I had a dream that I was with a group of ghost hunters in a purportedly haunted graveyard. In my dream, I remember reminding myself that before I left the cemetery, I needed to announce in a loud voice that nothing should attach itself and follow me from the site: that it would not be welcome in my life, in my house, or anywhere around me. I woke up from that dream wondering where on earth it came from. True, my husband and I are planning a trip to Charleston, South Carolina in the not-too-distant future that will, of course, include a ghost tour. Maybe that was what was on my mind.

Still, when I have a dream that vivid, I pay attention. Writing what I do, fascinated by what I am, attracting what I might, being prepared and cautious is a good idea. I believe in staying safe in everyday life and heartily recommend that every girl, every woman, have a handful of strategies to use when threatened. It should only follow that I be as prepared, as cautious, in the realm of my particular career. 

Thus, St. Benedict is with me every day and at my bedside every night. An ounce of precaution is worth a pound of cure, they say. I've already had a run-in with something I'd never want to meet again, so I'm grateful for my protection. As for that run-in? Well, that's an entirely different story.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Paranormal Reality TV and Research

I am addicted to quite a few paranormal reality TV shows. I guess that juxtaposing "paranormal" and "reality" would look like an oxymoron to quite a few people, but I'm an unapologetic believer so I'm fine using that phrase to describe what I watch. I call it "research."

I don't know if anyone reading this routinely sits down with the same shows, but I'll bet most of those who do aren't also sitting there with a notebook and a pen. I'm not kidding about the research. I've gotten amazing history tips from John Zaffis, The Haunted Collector. His show not only featured all of the client interviews, night vigils, cameras, recording equipment, and ruh-roh! moments as every worthy paranormal investigative show should, it also delved into researching the history of the site and the object/s he was investigating. And from that aspect of each show, I have learned about small pox, blood-letting, and 19th century cavalry uniforms, among other things. I also have a notebook with lists of bizarre details that are too good to forget about entirely; who knows when one of them will pop up in a Bridgeton Park Cemetery Book? I LOVE my research!

I have purchased the books written by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson to give me something to do between seasons of Ghost Hunters, another one of my obsessions. (I only know one other person who dragged her husband out to hear Jason and fellow hunter Steve Gonsalves do a presentation at the haunted Rialto Theater in Joliet.) 

I watched Psychic Kids for years until it went away. I couldn't talk my husband into going to see Chip Coffey in person, so I brought my daughter and we teamed up with my friend, the one I ran into  -with her husband- at the Hawes/Gonsalves presentation. Psychic Kids taught me how paranormal experiences can differ so much from one person to the next, depending on the way the ability manifests for each particular psychic. And I also got to watch, on many a show, the interactions between a psychically-gifted child and a non-believing parent, interactions that help spur the conflict I write between Cassie and her mother.

I also regularly tune in to The Haunting Of... ,The Dead Files, Haunted History, and Ghostly Encounters. I would be watching Celebrity Ghost Stories if I could only find it on my service. I sometimes watch A Haunting. And I mourn the disappearances of The Haunted Collector and Psychic Kids.

I know I have written about all of this before and apologize to anyone who feels this column is a repeat. To help make this new again, I'll include this little tidbit: I only ever write my stories during the day. This dates back to when I wrote for a community newspaper and did the true ghost stories Halloween article. Something got very interested in what I was doing and made such a crashing disturbance in the garage that I thought the shelf had come off the wall. I was home alone when that happened, and I realized I could handle it during the day, but probably not at night... 

I know I've also mentioned that when I write about ghosts, my house comes to life. Things shift and bang. I sometimes hear footsteps coming down the hall toward my office. There are miscellaneous rustlings and shufflings coming from other rooms. It all stops when I stop writing, but it always happens. Even my husband has heard it and asked me, "What is that?" "Nothing, dear, just the usual when I'm working."

So here's my little tidbit: lately, while I sit with the remote in hand, watching my DVR'd paranormal reality shows, the house behaves the way it does when I'm writing. I can't decide it it's because restless spirits like watching shows about themselves, or it they're trying to get me off the couch and back to the keyboard. Whatever it is, it sure adds that little extra to the show I'm watching. And if I write down a description of the particular rustling or other disturbance I hear, that becomes part of my research, too.