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?