Monday, June 29, 2015

That (Other) Thing in the Basement

Image result for ghosts with chains

Two things to know about me: 1. I never thought boys had cooties (I was always boy-crazy, even when I was, like, five years old) and 2. I went to an all-girls Catholic High School in Chicago. I will also add that going to that high school probably upped my hunting and gathering skills considerably. I'm not talking about shopping: I'm talking about boys.

Another thing: I went to college in the early to mid-70's. (Yes, I am that age. I'd rather discuss my age and my weight any day over my religion, but that's an aside.) 

All of that said, I entered my Freshman year of college habitually on the prowl. Just ask Jim. Because it was the early to mid-70's, the folkways and mores about dating were somewhat removed from the more going-steady sort of mindset of the earlier decades. In other words, we dated a lot, and not exclusively. I think at one point I was seeing about five different guys at the same time, most of whom knew about the others, and so what? No one wanted to go steady. Or at least, I didn't tend to date guys who weren't like-minded. Which leads me to a certain young man I started dating my first year of college. We met in German class. He had a cute face, a decent sense of humor, and eyes that were ridiculously blue. He had a couple of other traits that came out later, but that's the point of this piece, I guess.

He was a sci-fi freak (I eventually married one, so even though I am not blissfully in love with the genre, we are companionable enough) and one of our dates was to go to the newly-released Sean Connery movie, "Zardoz." If you have seen this movie, I don't have to say another word. If you have not seen this movie, let me say that the best thing about it was that I heard Beethoven's Seventh for the first time on the soundtrack, and for me, that was kind of the peak of the entire show.

Anyhow, we went to the movie, probably went out for dessert, and came back to my folks' house to hang around. I have no idea what we did until two in the morning, and that's the truth. To this day, I have no idea if this guy was a decent kisser or not, so that tells you what we didn't do for those several hours between arriving home and his departure. But somehow, during the course of our casual dating, I had let slip that I lived in a haunted house. He was a huge skeptic about it, to the point of mocking. That was all right. I knew my house was haunted and no matter what he said or ridiculed, nothing was going to change that. Ah, but something in my house had a sense of humor.

I walked him to the door when it was time for him to leave. It was, as I mentioned, somewhere around two in the morning. We were the only two people on the entire first floor. My parents were asleep upstairs. My sister was still out, and both of my brothers had long since left the nest. My date and I stopped at the front door for a good-night kiss -the height or romance for us, apparently- and he said something like, "You told me that your house was haunted but I haven't seen or heard anything to prove it."

I just kinda smiled and answered, "You don't always."

So he put his arms around me and was leaning in for a smacker, when all of a sudden a very strange noise began in the basement, just below where we were standing. He stopped and pulled away and asked, well, demanded, "What was that?"

It sounded like something heavy being dragged across a floor. With chains. If I had hired a Hollywood effects crew, I couldn't have asked for a more haunted house cliche noise. Seriously. "I don't know," I said.

He wasn't satisfied. "I mean it. What is that?"

And I said, "I don't know; I've never heard that before." And that was the truth. I had heard crying babies, singing children, furniture being moved, coins being dropped, but I had never heard -nor did I ever again hear- the sound of a heavy, chained weight being dragged around down in the basement. And here's the punchline, which I include for my niece in Texas: from the location of the sound, this was all happening in a room that was kept locked, with a full array of movable shelves stacked with toys and books placed across the doorway. A room I had never entered in my life. So I told him that.

And he left. To this day, I think he suspects I set something up, even though it had nothing to do with me. We never dated again. But it turned out that living in a haunted house that performed almost on cue wasn't enough to lose a date and potential boyfriend. 

Being about to test for a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, however, decidedly was.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Old Attachments - No, Really

Image result for antiques images

When I was growing up in my haunted house over on the north side of Chicago, there was a double room in the basement that we used for storage and that always made me sick. Literally. Our basement ran pretty much the full length and breadth of the house. When you got to the bottom of the stairs and into the main room, there was a hallway to the right that led back to the laundry room and the more disturbed part of the house-- in that house, a little like observing that rattlesnakes are more poisonous than, say, scorpions. At any event, if instead of turning right to go into that hallway, you continued across the room, you would arrive at a door (always kept closed) that opened into a double room. On the right was a large, musty, fairly dark space where my family stored bigger unused objects like stuff in boxes and old vacuum cleaners and other uninteresting things like that. On the left was an arrangement of shelves built into the walls that were used to store the toys we didn't play with often but were not ready to give away, and also the books that were collected by a family of child readers.

Sometimes I needed to go into that basement room to get a book or to look for something I wanted that had been carted down during the last upstairs purge. And I always dreaded it. Within about five minutes of going into that room, my stomach would start to hurt. And I mean hurt. Sometimes, if I tried to ignore it and stayed longer -for whatever reason: what was I thinking??- this pain would progress to actual, er, digestive tract adventures. Let's leave it at that. Anyway, the point of the story is that the room made me sick in every sense of the word and I avoided it unless I couldn't.

Fast-forward to earlier this month. Jim and I went north to our beloved sanctuary in Door County, and spent a long weekend with some really good friends, hanging out and doing adult things. One of those adult things turned out to be antiquing.

There should have been alarm bells going off in my head when they suggested we go exploring the antique collections of northern Wisconsin, but instead I said, "Sure, why not?" and off we went. And there are A LOT of antique stores in Door County. Go up Highway 42 a ways north of Sturgeon Bay, and if you are into antiques, you would be in pig heaven. (Jim has always inadvertently saved me from myself by taking Highway 57 north instead.)

Now, first of all, there is one antique store I actually like. It's north of Bailey's Harbor and is an antique barn attached to a farmer's market called Koepsel's. We go there every time we go north. And that antique barn is where I found my beloved writing desk, which is guessed to date back to the late 19th century. I love my desk. Here's the thing: this antique barn is completely open on one side, since it seems to have been an actual barn. There are doors that the owners roll shut when the day is done, but during the day, the entire east wall of the place is a large entrance and exit. God bless them.

The other antique stores were just that: stores. There were regular doors and then you were in a shop, some of them big as barns, but completely closed off. The first one we went into was airy and spacious enough that I was okay. But the second emporium started to bother me. As my older daughter puts it, there's a feeling of stuffiness in those kinds of shops. And not just from having so many old things in an enclosed space. The longer I stayed in that store, the twingier my stomach started to feel. Uh-oh. Fortunately, my companions decided that they had seen enough of the place and so -on to the NEXT antique store.

I managed to handle that one for about ten minutes before I could feel the pandemonium building up in my gut. And although I hadn't been in the basement storeroom of my childhood home for more than 16 years, I recognized that feeling when I got it. Okay, time to go!!! my brain was singing at me. And so I got. Jim found me sitting on a bench outside taking deep breaths of Door County air, trying not to lose my breakfast. (Sorry).

Some people may try to tell me this was due to allergies to dust. I am a very indifferent housekeeper - I KNOW allergies to dust and this wasn't it. Maybe mold? I have been in other enclosed stores in Door County that do not come close to affecting me this way. And when you're on a peninsula with Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other, sure, there will be some dampness. But the kind of visceral reaction I have being around the old items of lots and lots of dead people (how do I know they're dead? When you're looking at grandma's stuff from the 1800's, I'd say it's a pretty fair bet that the folks who owned these items are dead) says to me that I am walking into a web of something else.

There's a reason some of us smudge antiques or used items we bring home. We want any items we acquire to be new and fresh for our own homes; we don't necessarily want anyone who might have loved their possessions to come into our homes along with our purchases.

Sometimes when I enter a museum or historic site, I'll get a mild feeling of being crowded by the unseen. Definitely a feeling of not being alone. But nothing compares to the sensation in an antique store. There are crowds in antique stores, veritable mobs, and they have nothing to do with the shoppers.

Next time you go antiquing, stop and listen, focus, pay attention to what's going on around you. And see if you don't get a little bit of that feeling yourself.

Monday, June 15, 2015

And Now a Word From Our Sponsors

Some months ago, I was hanging out with friends and fellow writers Donnie Light and Terri Reid. We were talking about writing as we always do (probably to the complete and utter boredom of our spouses, but that's never stopped us!), and Donnie said that he had been kicking around the idea of putting together an anthology based on songs. Being us three particular writers, he of course skewed the songs he had in mind to the dark side. I'll bet you can name at least three pretty dark songs without even half trying: things like "Don't Fear the Reaper," or "Season of the Witch," or "Hazard," or anything else along that line.

Terri and I immediately took to the idea and by the time the evening was over, the anthology was more than just a blip on Donnie's radar. He set to work almost right away and within weeks I received an invitation to submit a story as well as a list of guidelines. He even sent out updates regarding the list of authors participating and their choices of songs so that none of us would duplicate any of the selections already picked. Thanks to his unending enthusiasm for this project, his ability to herd writers -much like herding cats but with more wailing and gnashing of teeth involved- and his formatting and cover art expertise, Lyrical Darkness was born.

This blog piece is to let you know that the anthology, which includes the work of ten different writers, is available TODAY at Amazon, both for Kindle and in print (don't let the image I copied and pasted fool you. You can buy the paperback). For a number of reasons, I have only been able to advance-read two of the stories that are in the book, and both of them were amazing. If just the two are any indication, there will be something for everyone in this collection. And the best part is picking a story, listening to the song that is behind it -if you're not familiar with it or if it's been a long time since you last heard it- and then seeing what the author does to make those lyrics into a narrative.

I will admit that I was honored to be invited to the party. Writers Terri Reid, David McAfee, and Andrea Jones, in addition to Donnie himself, all have a story in Lyrical Darkness. To me, that means I got to sit at the grown-up table! It also means a lot of fun reading while glancing over my shoulder to see what's sneaking up on me from the shadows. 

Check it out and see what you think. Although I admit that short stories are not always what I am looking for, this is one anthology I am going to enjoy.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Bullies Beyond the Grave

 Image result for the legend of hell house

Does anyone out there remember a movie called "The Legend of Hell House"? The movie was released in 1973 and starred Roddy McDowell and Pamela Franklin, and was a pretty decent haunted house story. The premise was that a group of investigators, led by a physicist of all things, were going to explore a known haunted house and they invited Roddy McDowell along as their "ringer." Roddy McDowell's character, Benjamin Fischer, was the only living survivor of the group that had tried exploring the house earlier. How they got him to agree to go back in was explained in the story, but I remember that while I watched the movie, I was thinking that he must have been of his mind.

That said,  (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) the analysis of the house arrived at by Florence Tanner, the medium played by Pamela Franklin, is that the dark forces running rampant in the place are actually being controlled by one particular entity. There. That doesn't give everything away, but it might ruin a few moments in the film, if you choose to watch it.

The point of bringing all of this up some forty-two years after I first saw the film is that my paranormal reality shows support the idea that one dark entity can enslave/control/manipulate other entities or ghosts and hold power over them, forbidding them from crossing over into the light, and making their lives? their deads? what would you call it? a living hell, literally. In two separate episodes of one of my favorites shows, the psychic medium explains that there is one powerful entity controlling all of the others present onsite -be it home, hotel, or what-have-you- and that is forcing these hapless dead folk to do its bidding, punishing them somehow if they do not, and actually keeping them from moving on as they should. Following this idea to its natural conclusion, the medium then proceeds to tell the client that in order to achieve peace within the house, the goal is to get rid of that one powerful dark presence. It that happens, then the rest of the dead people will leave of their own accord, most of them happily.


Before I started watching all of these shows and reading all of these books, I had thought of hauntings as basically straight-line things. Someone dies -unhappily or unexpectedly or both- in a particular location, and a ghost is born. The idea of having something on the other side that is evil enough and powerful enough to bend other dead folks to its bidding is amazingly unsettling to me. As a former Catholic, I understood the afterlife in fairly simplistic terms: there was heaven, there was hell, there was purgatory (the waiting room for heaven), and then there were those who got lost between death and the eternal placement (ghosts). Now I've learned about entities who actually function in that space between and are up to nothing good, at the expense of others, both dead and living. That certainly adds to the complexity of a problem haunting, and it also sure explains a lot.

I'm not certain how or when, but I imagine the concept of a dead and evil mastermind will turn up in one of my books at some point. 

I'm just not in a hurry to see what then turns up in my house when I start writing that kind of story...

Monday, June 1, 2015

A certain reader complained to me recently about my tendency to end a topical discussion with the disclaimer "But that's another story." Said reader demanded, "When do we finally get the other story?" Since I am all about trying to find different topics for my weekly blog, I decided to tell one of those stories and see how it goes. But I need to lead up to it, first.

Accounts of haunted buildings, whether houses, churches, hospitals, schools, restaurants, or hotels, all designate particular rooms and locations within those buildings as particularly disturbed. This actually makes sense, since one can't expect a ghost to be haunting every room in the place all of the time. Also, perhaps ghosts tend to linger around the point of emotional impact that keeps them tethered to the place to begin with.

I can attest to that. The house I grew up in on the north side of Chicago had a strange feeling to it but there was one side of the place in particular that was bothersome, and this was arranged along a vertical plane that cut through the house from the attic floor all the way down to the basement. Just to add to it, that side of the house was closest to the garage, also a strange part of the property and not just because it included a coach house apartment with a bricked-off staircase and upstairs room. That side of the house, the property, was dark.

The house I live in now, in a suburb west of Chicago, is not classically haunted like my childhood home. But it has its quirks. A tarot card reader once said that this house was like a "way station," as she put it. What she meant was that nothing stayed long-term, nor was there a residential spirit. But the house, for whatever reason, invited visitors. Back in the days when we had a dog, there were times he would wake from a nap, turn his attention to the front door, and begin to bark, sometimes in acknowledgment, sometimes with real ferocity, as if something he didn't like or trust waited on the front step. There were times the doorbell rang for no reason. And there have been times that darker things, for want of a better word, have come in and hung around for a while.

One of the quirks of this house is that it is a ranch style built with a long transverse hall that extends from the laundry room through the kitchen, past the bathroom, and ends in our bedroom. Because I am a very short person, I can actually get a decent jog going inside my own house, and have managed various effective workouts throughout the years that include short runs -even sprints- along my hallway. But there was one year that my path was curtailed just past the bathroom. That's because some kind of resident shadow had taken up residence between the bathroom door and the little curve that rounds past our bedroom and ends up in my office. It was not a pleasant thing and even though with every lap I told myself I would complete the circuit by stopping at my office door, every lap I stopped at the bathroom and turned to jog back the way I had come. This darkness only lasted for about a week, and whatever it was that disturbed the house disappeared as abruptly as it had appeared without explanation.

The other end of our house, the laundry room and the entrance to the garage, is actually the part of the house that is most disturbed. Or disturbing. I think I mentioned in a recent post that I had come out of the powder room one night and run into something outside the powder room door. Now, the powder room is connected to the laundry room, and the laundry room is also connected to the garage. Strange things happen in my garage when I am working. One day I heard a particularly loud crash and found that a box I never even knew was in there had fallen to the concrete floor and sadly, smashed three of the five collector plates I had been saving to display in a special place. My daughters had even put dibs on these things, jokingly, to be assigned in my will. But now three of them are gone, one might be repairable, and only one is intact. I don't know what caused the box to fall. I don't even know where that box had been placed: had I known my plates were there, I would have brought them into the house a long time ago. But there it is.

At any event, coming out of the powder room door: it was a weeknight, it was late, and as I turned off the light and stepped into the dark of the laundry room, an even darker shape started forming to my immediate right, just in front of the garage door. I can't say it was going to be human-looking: I didn't stay long enough to find out. I do know that the shadow was swirling around, shaping itself as I glanced at it, and that it was going to be taller than I am (not saying much, but enough to freak me out.) I don't panic and run when this sort of thing happens. No, I panic and walk out at a very controlled pace so that I don't lose it entirely. Something inside me says that out of control panic is what the thing wants, and will give it some kind of power over me. I have no idea why I feel that way, I just do.

I don't know what that shadow was. I don't know if it's still here, or likely to turn up again. I do know that I would rather not run into it again and I hope I don't. 

So that's "another story." One of these days, perhaps I will actually tell the poltergeist story. Perhaps. One of these days...