Monday, September 28, 2015

Ghosts of Autumn

A writer friend of mine once contacted me about a story he was working on that entailed a haunting in summertime. He told me that he only ever associated ghosts with one season, and that was autumn. So I proceeded to remind him that there are ghosts that haunt in the summer, and chill unsuspecting bystanders with sudden drops of temperature, or screams and wails that can be heard above the white noise of air-conditioning or window fans. There are specters that turn up in the winter, coming forth as discrete white shapes from banks of snow, or stalking through the formerly cozy family room with the blazing fireplace and all the antiques from estate sales that crowd the mantel. And of course there are spring phantoms: young teenage lovers that died tragically coming home from prom, or the blurred voices that are carried along the winds of a sudden, violent thunderstorm that bruises the skies in black and gray and shakes the windows with its sheer force. 

He found a way to write a summer haunting.

Ghosts are year-round, no doubt to those of us who believe they exist. But still, my friend had a point. There is something particularly spectral about autumn. Sure, it's the fact that there are more hours of darkness than light. There are the beautiful leaves that fall from the trees, only to turn brown and brittle, leaving skeletal branches to withdraw their vibrancy in the face of oncoming winter. There's that holiday devoted entirely to candy, costumes, and chills, all fun and games but with roots in some fairly frightening beliefs.

And then there's just that feel of autumn. Believers in the paranormal/supernatural/otherworldly/unseen dimension also believe that for whatever reason, the "veil between worlds" is thinner in autumn. Somewhere back in our cultural traditions, there is the age-old concept that Fall is the time when we of the living can more easily find and reach out to those who no longer walk the earth in physical form. And they can more easily find and reach out to us.

We are living in a very scientific age. Nearly everything on the physical plane that can be analyzed and explained has been, even if we may not know the last detail of every single mechanism. Yet. We know that trees go dormant during the cold months. We know that leaves turn color because they stop producing chlorophyll. We know the days are shorter because of where our planet is in relation to the sun. All of it has been explained by science and none of it is a surprise any longer.

And yet...there is an intangible something about autumn. 

Lots of us writers, especially those of us who write with one foot in the other world, so to speak, feel unusually inspired by the early darkness and the growing chills. We listen to Fall winds that whistle through cracks in the window and blow the hapless leaves down the gutters and across the streets, and we feel the stories begin to grow inside of us. We sniff the fires being started in countless fireplaces and conjure up memories of walking home from school, from work, from the bus stop or the train station in a time of growing shadows and early night, and images of other worlds and snatches of dialogue between characters who only exist within us urge us to our pens and pads and keyboards.

Maybe it's true of all creative people. Maybe every art has its own season. But for me, Fall is claimed by the writers. Fall is for those of us who sense the souls who have gone on ahead and yet still linger behind to tell their dark tales. So as much as I miss the long days of summer, the sunsets that come hours after dinner and the sunrises that greet me before I even stumble into the bathroom to brush my teeth, there is that part of me that always welcomes the coming season of short days and long, long nights. 

There is a part of me that will always welcome the ghosts of autumn.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Company You Keep

The other Saturday, I got to participate in a town festival in central Illinois, where I sold books and met folks. Here is the thing: I have a sign that lists the price of $8 for any of my books, plus an optional, quick, free palm reading for anyone who buys a book. This has been my practice for years, in homage to the character of Naomi, Nick Borja's cousin, who is featured reading Michael Penfield's palms in Haunted

The reactions I get to this little perk are everything from outright disapproval and almost visible repulsion to "Could you read my friend's palm, too?" All of them make me laugh. But what really drove the point home to me was when I spent a Saturday selling books and reading palms at a Psychic and Paranormal Expo. I sold more books and read more palms at the Expo than I ever have before or since. And the conversations were amazing. 

Let me backtrack a bit. For some years, I was on the board and planning committee of the Love Is Murder (now called LimCom) mystery writer's/reader's conference. One of the funniest aspects about that conference is that the setting allows complete freedom to talk about murder and all its grisly details. Walking down the hall, you can hear sentences like "I just need to know how to kill him off slowly enough so that he has time to say a few things before he dies" and "Does anyone know how to poison someone so that they die instantly?" and "But that kind of round would leave an exit wound the size of Manhattan" and "I don't think you can strangle someone with piano wire and not draw blood." Talk like that, while walking down the street, would probably raise eyebrows, if not result in a call to the cops. But at that particular conference, talk like that was the norm. We even imported extraordinary ER doc William Ernoehazy, MD to address concerns and answer questions exactly like those listed above. (Dr. Bill, as we all call him, is also a Navy Vet, martial artist, and sharpshooter, so he's unusually qualified for the interests at LimCom.)

What I'm driving at is that since I write paranormal/supernatural ghost-obsessed stories, my kindred audience, so to speak, would be present at something like the Expo. I've never before had so many people come up to me out of the blue and start telling me ghost stories and sharing other paranormal experiences. I've never before had a woman buy my book, bring back a daughter and buy another book, then bring back yet another daughter and buy a book so that all three of them could have their palms read. That was awesome! That's where a young man told me all about so that I could see who died in the house I grew up in - the haunted one. It's also where I could read someone's palm and talk about past lives without raising so much as one hair of an eyebrow. It was the most fun book-signing I have ever done in my life.

The town fair, much like the literary fest I'll be attending next month, draws a more diverse crowd, a lot of whom are earnest church-goers and who find my interests and palm-reading offer to be a bit beyond the pale. Maybe a few steps closer to eternal damnation, I'm not sure. I will sell a book or two at one of these things. When I sell a book, I consider that to be a victory and my day there is complete. I mostly go to meet other writers and exchange ideas. (I collect people as well as books, but that's another topic.)

Going to all of these events has afforded me the opportunity to people watch, talk to those who are so inclined to talk about my pet subject matter, and sell a book or two. At any event, I get invited to fairs and festivals and I pack up my books and go, and I enjoy myself.

But dang, when it comes to meeting and greeting the public, I gotta find me another paranormal expo!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Can Death Make Love Scary?

My father passed away back in the '80's. I was already married and the mother of two children when this happened, so I was blessed to have had both of my parents well into my adult life. There were a lot of relatives and close family friends who were in and out of the house, so my mother, although dealing with a dreadful loss, was not without companionship, and we all enjoyed the visiting.

One of my aunts, and I use that term in the traditional Filipino way, knowing that we weren't necessarily related (or maybe distantly) but were as close as family, was a crazy-funny lady who also happened to be completely superstitious. She confided into another one of my aunts that she was afraid to go upstairs or anywhere in the house alone for fear of running into my father's ghost.

Huh. It was the first time I'd ever heard an adult express something that sounded like a childhood fear, but she was perfectly serious. And the thought moved into my head and stayed there.

Life being what it is, I have had more losses since my father passed: relatives, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends. And with every one of them, I have wondered about running into that deceased person's spirit, whether walking down the hall or waiting for me in the living room. Most of the time, the thought is actually kind of comforting, as I guess it would be. What wouldn't we give, sometimes, to run into someone we love very much just one more time? 

On the other hand, there is always the unsettling aspect of meeting up with someone that I know is not supposed to be there. I remind myself that most of the people I fear running into the most - those that I don't know very well- would have little reason to drop in on me, any more than they would have when they were alive. They would be the folks that I knew but only saw on certain occasions, or only because they knew me through a mutual friend.

Still, every time I lose another person to the other side, I do wonder about seeing them again. I guess, given my job, that's not surprising.

The ones who have crossed over and have come back to visit have been very kind and come to me in dreams. Maybe that's why so many of my characters have that experience. Those are the dreams that I don't consider to be dreams: I consider them to be actual visits. Especially in view of the nature of some of those dreams, and specifically when they occurred. Some of them were fond last visits, others were more like someone checking in. I cherish all of them.

Because of the nature of my job, I probably have an obsession with death that borders on the morbid. Or maybe it's because of the nature of my job and the thread of sadness/depression that seems to go hand in hand with being a writer. Whatever the cause, someone I know recently went from this side of life's equation to the other, and so I found myself wondering, yet again, what it would be like to run into that person now. Still, we were never close so why would I even rate a visit? And that's the way it should be. There are so many others who would need that appearance; it would be wasted on me, a mere acquaintance.

And then I find myself wondering -when it's my turn to cross over, will I come back to visit? And if I do, will I frighten the person I've come back to see? Although I can think of a few people I'd love to scare the bejesus out of, for the most part I'd rather do the gentle visit thing. I wouldn't want my death to make my love into something scary.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Favorite Haunts

Some years ago, I tried writing a story that did not contain anything paranormal in it, and failed miserably. It was about that time that I finally, totally realized that I write ghost stories. Or stories with weird things in them. And I can't seem to write anything that is paranormal-free. I guess that's fine, since I can't seem to live my life paranormal-free either. Nonbelievers will (and have) told me that my experiences are all in my head and that I find what I find because I'm looking for it. Can I turn that around and say that they''ll never find what I do because they're not looking for it? But that's another discussion.

As it is, I started thinking about when I wasn't writing as a vocation (like during my childhood, although I started writing my first ghost story novel in third or fourth grade) and when I was as likely to read a book about the supernatural as I was to write one. And I also started thinking about what kind of book would have drawn me to it. I realize that for me, setting was a huge part of it, and that remains true to this day.

First and foremost, I liked haunted living spaces: old houses with creaky floors and a fireplace; cozy, overstuffed chairs close to the hearth, and candlesticks on the mantle. The beds in the isolated bedrooms would have been four-posters and there would have been enough ancestral portraits along the walls to be just a wee bit disturbing. Floors would have been hardwood with worn, Persian carpet-type runners, and lots of the windows would have been mullioned. As for the ghost, I would have been as content with a white lady holding a candle as with a small child in a nightshirt or a tragic pair of lovers, all broken-hearted and (depending on how old I was when I read the story) with varying degrees of sobbing or wailing, even blood-soaked appearances.

I liked haunted castles filled with ghostly lords and ladies, spectral cats, dark shadowy figures and white misty ones as well.

I liked ghosts with messages, spirits who could not rest until they conveyed some bit of forgotten family history to a generations-later descendant, or showed the way to a buried treasure. Or an unknown burial site. Either was perfectly acceptable.

I like the whole feel of the Victorian Sherlock Holmes era, even though Mr. Holmes would not have believed in ghosts and would have gone to great lengths to explain any haunting he ran into. For Americans, perhaps, England has the best fogs, the best gore-filled history, the richest possibility of a full-blown, no-holds-barred, in-your-face haunting. At least, it always has for me.

But now when I read ghost stories, most of them in nonfiction collections, I'm as excited to learn the history behind the haunting as I am to learn the details of the apparition and its appearances. Lately, I'm really looking into ghost stories centered in Illinois, particularly the Chicago area. I have a bunch of books I've already read, and a handful more to get to, and I am happy as a clam. English ghost stories are still a treat, but there is always the aspect that the haunting is thousands of miles away and related to a history that is centuries old. Hauntings close to home are a little more difficult to dismiss because, well, they're close to home. So while they might not include castles or ghostly lords and ladies, maybe I'm content with home-grown wraiths if just for the chance of running into one of them. Outside the pages of the book. 

Um, did anyone else hear that?