Monday, August 31, 2015

And Yet More Visitors

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There are two things to know when reading this post: 1) my grandson sees ghosts (all of you who have been reading this blog regularly already know about that, several times over, probably!) and 2) after living here for the past 21 years, Jim and I are finally doing some needed renovations to our house.

Okay, let's take it from the second statement. Our house was built in 1960 or so, and is very tired in some places. We have done a little here and there to update it. We took out all the carpet and put in hardwood everywhere in 2006. We have changed window treatments. We converted a bedroom into an office. We replaced the front door after suffering a break-in. We even had the entire kitchen remodeled last year -- so long to scarred formica counters and scary linoleum flooring! This year, we are going to enclose the screened-in porch to make a new office, and give the current office to our grandson as his very own bedroom.

Renovating the porch and making it into more living space has entailed hiring a contractor, getting a building permit, and then setting up really frightening things like "demolition" and "excavation." I leave that to Jim, the engineer, and our contractor, who seems amazingly excited about the job, bless his heart.

But the other day while I was cooking dinner, my grandson slid into the kitchen in his stocking feet on our nice, new floors and said to me, "Who used to live here?" And the conversation went like this:

Me: Do you mean who used to live in this house before we did?

Grandson: Yes.

Me: A very nice couple (and I gave him names). They moved to the East Coast when we bought the house from them.

Grandson: (nodding) They're dead.

Me: What did you say?

Grandson: They're dead.

Me: How do you know that?

Grandson: (sly smile) I just do. 

As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the previous owners had gone on to their rest. They were retired and elderly when we bought this house and they were going back to where they had originally started out. Jim also told me, when I related this peculiar exchange to him, that the wife had cancer when we met her. I didn't know that. It just hit me as a little strange that a seven-year old boy, whose current obsessions are Minecraft, dinosaurs, and Legos, would be interested in who owned our house before we did.

So perhaps all that they say about renovations stirring things up is true. Or perhaps they just dropped by to see what we've done with the old place, and my grandson ran into them. They would have all liked each other: the man was very grandfatherly, and his wife was a retired teacher and had once decorated our utility room with cheerful little mushroom stickers. 

I hope they like what we're doing with their place. Since my grandson didn't seem particularly alarmed by them -didn't come running to me the way he did once upon a time when "the big boy was coming"- I'm going to assume that they approve. They had loved this house when they were here. And now that we're here, we love it, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Superstition and Rot

On a recent trip to Vancouver, my sister found a book that she picked up and gave to me as a present. It's called A Dictionary of Superstitions and is edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem (great names! I couldn't have invented better!) And it's fascinating.

I am casually reading through it at odd moments for weird story suggestions, something I seek very frequently, and came across an entry called CLOTHES of the dead. ("Clothes" has no less than six entries, including CLOTHES first time worn and CLOTHES inside out, among others). Naturally, any phrase including the word "dead" is going to catch my eye, so I read the the paragraph. The entry included the observation by a woman back in 1925 who noted that some linens that had been left to her by a lady had rotted away "fretting for their owner." Two particular things about this notation struck me, hard.

First of all, the idea of inanimate objects "fretting" for something is absolutely terrific. Especially expressed by someone other than me! I have a tendency to think every thing has feelings. To see this idea espoused by someone from another time and culture felt great.

But the second notion was the more forceful: the idea of rotting away. "Rot" is something closely associated with death. It catches the morbid fancy of a lot of us - the idea of someone's corpse decaying in the coffin. We write and read about it (see Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.). We sing about it (anywhere from John Brown's Body to The Hearse Song.) We put it into movies and television - and WHY are zombies so popular right now? We are both fascinated and horrified by the rotting process that accompanies physical death.

Stephen King once said that when he felt he couldn't frighten his readers with the more subtle kinds of scary images (although I believe he does that extremely well), he wasn't above "going for the gross-out." He does that extremely well, also, as readers of IT, The Stand, and oh, yes, Misery, will know. Graphic novels, horror comic books, even the annual Halloween Haunted Houses make use of the whole rotting-body concept. After all, there are so many ways to play with that.

As a writer, I think about it from time to time. When Michael Penfield sees his dead people, so far, he has only been aware that they are dead. Sometimes, he is unfortunate enough to see them as they were at the moment of death, but not always. Frequently they look like anyone else, just a bit transparent, and usually from another era. But I wonder if his luck is about to change...

That said, I do prefer the more, well, aesthetically-pleasing haunt, myself. The misty figure, the shadow that is darker than night, the presence that is all cold air and a clammy touch. Maybe I'll get all the way to rotting corpses one of these books. But not yet. There are currently so many examples of decaying dead people all over the mass media that I think I'm okay hanging back with my wispy phantoms. But hey, please do let me know if you think otherwise!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Is It Just Me, or...

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As I frequently mention, when I write, my house goes crazy. Here is an instance of craziness in my house when I wasn't writing.

My daughter and her son live with us. My grandson is seven years old, bright, funny, and cute, with huge sleepy eyes and a sweet voice that to me, is unmistakable. Usually. Also, my husband gets up for work around five, and I get up with him to give him some kind of breakfast and then pull his lunch together. We've been doing this for the past 38 years, so it's nothing new. However, since I work at home, after he leaves and I've finished my morning routine, I will sometimes tumble back into bed to either "rest my eyes" or, more likely, obsess about what's coming down the pipes at me for the day. Sometimes my grandson gets himself out of bed, and joins me in my room.

Last week, I was on my bed contemplating a story line when I heard a crashing noise from my daughter's room. I figured that my grandson had slid himself out of his bed and would soon be popping in on me. Sure enough, I heard the padding footsteps of a kid who sleeps in socks.. Then I heard my daughter's bedroom door open, and I heard him come toward my room. We have hardwood floors, so his steps make a pretty distinct sound. Instead of coming in, though, I heard him turn down the hall. I could hear his sweet, little voice talking a mile a minute, so I figured he was probably looking for his grandpa in case the man was still home. He didn't come back right away, and I thought he might have gone to the bathroom. I returned to my story line.

He didn't come back five minutes later, either. That was strange. After reflecting on that, I went looking for him. Sometimes he uses the powder room at the other end of the house. But no, he wasn't there. Not in the kitchen, or the living room, or the full bathroom. So I opened his door very quietly and...he was still in bed.

That was a bit of a shock. I KNOW I heard him get up. I KNOW I heard those footsteps, and I know FOR CERTAIN that I heard that little voice. Except it wasn't my grandson.

I wasn't frightened by it. I wasn't even really weirded out. Okay, maybe a little. More than that, though, I wondered exactly who or what I did hear, because I know I heard someone. And I know I wasn't asleep and dreaming.

The Grand Central Station house strikes again - I guess someone was passing through. Whoever it was, he sounded very young. I sure hope he found his way to wherever he was going.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Ghost Inside

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This post will have less to do with the paranormal and more to do with life and friendship. I'm not all about dead people, you know.

I knew a girl once who was one of the saddest people I've ever met. She came from a childhood that she didn't discuss much; I gathered from little details that it wasn't very happy. She was creative and funny and quiet and after striking up a tentative friendship with her (the tentative part being on her side) I began to gather that she was a combination of black sheep/wrinkled pea in her family. Her background was conservative, to put it mildly. And she was the oldest child in a family of divorce, so responsibility settled early on her young shoulders.

She was brilliant, creative, and overwhelmingly shy, so she didn't make friends easily. High school was rougher on her than it should have been, and I always felt bad about that. Some of us (I'm waving my arms wildly, shouting "Over here!") adopt an attitude of "You think I'm weird? I'll show you weird" and wear the label proudly. She never did that though, opting instead for silence and near invisibility. It was not easy to convince her that I genuinely wanted to become friends.

Why? Because instead of substance abuse or other self-destructive behavior, she found her escape in books. Just like me. I like ghost stories and mysteries. She liked fantasy and sometimes science fiction. So we started swapping books and became comrades in literature. We shared stories. We shared some confidences. We even spent a few months writing to each other, but that didn't last. Life went on and we both became too busy.

The last time I saw her, she was holding herself together after some dreadful emotional wounding that she would not discuss, and she was disappearing around the edges. More and more of her slipped away and I didn't know how to help her, so I just waited, hoping that she would talk to me at some point. But she didn't.

With someone like that, I could almost see the ghost inside. I am not saying that she died and became one. I am also not suggesting that when she slips off this mortal coil, she will become one. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, not the bleak existence of being a trapped, unhappy spirit  doomed to wander the paths she once knew until she finds her own way to the light. And yet, when I think about her, I see all the earmarks of what some people would call characteristic of spirits who hang around: an unhappy life, trauma, sadness, loneliness. The cherry on the ghost cake, of course, is the tragic or violent demise and I hope I never hear that an ending like that is the ending of this girl's story. 

I tend to think that a ghost, at least the way I view it, is the remaining intelligence of someone who once was in physical form, and who has not figured out a way to cross over to where he or she needs to be. Someone who is baffled by life, whether by difficult circumstances, tragic events, or trauma, might have a difficult time finding a way out of the not-quite-afterlife dilemma. I think about this girl often and hope that will never be the case for her.

And then I sometimes wonder - if enough compassion, enough empathy, enough encouragement, is shared with a person who is struggling so hard in this life, is it possible to prevent someone from becoming a ghost in the first place?

Monday, August 3, 2015

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I made a new friend at British Fest last month and we have become penpals, because both of us enjoy letters that come via the Post Office. I like email for speed and convenience. I like texting for even speedier convenience. But for an actual long-distance conversation, I am still very much a fan of the written letter. I have to type mine because my penmanship has devolved into random squiggles. My friend,  however, has a collection of antique fountain pens and a cursive hand that is just absolutely gorgeous.

His name is David and we wound up talking to each other when we were seated at the same table for dinner on the last night of the Fest. It turns out that he and his wife (also a very charming person) are from Parkersburg, West Virginia. And I said to him, "Parkersburg? The place that had the flood?" Although they assured me that Parkesrburg has had more than one flood, I told them that I was referring to one that happened early in the 1900's and was caused by the collapse and rupture of two water towers. It happened at night (doesn't it always?) and sent literally millions of gallons of water running downhill into the town. Houses were flooded and then washed away with no warning, and people died, drowned, in that dark and unexpected flash flood.

David knew about that and said that he actually had a couple of antique postcards that depicted the event.

And then I fessed up and said that I knew about it from watching a ghost story show. True that - it was featured on an episode of The Dead Files

And then we started talking about ghosts. 

Segue to my receiving his first letter last week. Not only was it awesome to get some handwritten mail, but he had included a personal ghost story in the letter! I was thrilled. As he put it, it was a "little story." It involved being in an abandoned hospital/asylum -with permission- and taking photographs. He said that at one point as he was climbing the stairs, carefully, to the third floor, he dropped his lens cap and heard it bounce a few times on the steps below him before settling somewhere. Since his hands were full of equipment, he figured he would finish climbing the stairs, set his things down, and then go looking for his lens cap. And when he went down to do so, he found the cap sitting on one of the newel posts, as it would have been had someone picked it up and set it there for him to find. Of course, no one else was in the building. And he had heard it bouncing around, so he doubts it bounced up to a newel post and parked itself there. He called out "Thank you!" and proceeded to take his pictures. (Brave man; I might have left!)

So indeed, it is a little story. But I think sometimes the little ones are the best. Just some little detail that can't quite be explained away, and yet there it is. And to me, those are the ones that are always indicative of a true haunting: the items that go missing and can't be found no matter how hard they are searched for, only for them to turn up in a very obvious place weeks later (been there, done that); the door that opens for you when your hands are full and you can't figure out how you're going to get all your stuff into the house; the reaction the cat or the dog has to something you can't see; the reaction your baby or small child has to something you can't see; the remote control car or the vocalizing toy that starts itself up out of nowhere, with no one anywhere near the controls, frequently in the middle of the night. I have a feeling we've all of us experienced this kind of thing. And it's always just enough to cause a chill, or a quick minute of goosebumps. Little hauntings. Subtle. But definitely there.

The other day I was home alone and trying to read something when the washing machine reached the absolutely noisiest and most disturbing point in its cycle. And then the laundry room door closed itself while I was at the other end of the house, effectively muffling the noise. I heard the door shut and went to check; yup, it was closed.

Okay. Uh, thanks. Whoever you are. Come back when the rest of the family is here, okay?