Monday, November 14, 2016

The World is a Scary Place-Stories As Coping Mechanism

Years ago when Stephen King released his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, he spent some time on the topic of xenophobia and how a rise or fall in the popularity of horror films could be related to uneasiness within the nation. He correlated the number of monster and alien horror movies to the Cold War and the USA's citizenry dealing with such frightening concepts as bombs, possible Communist attacks, and the during- and after-effects of McCarthyism. Interestingly enough, the fear factor in the scary movies being released as entertainment (and what King considered to be a pressure-relief valve in troubled times) was two-fold: sometimes the monsters came from outside of our world, and just as (or more) horrifying, sometimes they came from within our own environment. For every alien attack on the Earth, there was another monster that was bred from radiation or other catalyst that originated on our own planet.

We're only two weeks past Halloween, and deep into the season of short days and long, dark nights, so perhaps it isn't fair to lay the uptick in horror movies being released during this time at the feet of our most recent election and attendant campaign season. Perhaps. The past decade, at least, and maybe longer than that, has seen a decided rise in horror stories, and not just in the movies. Stephen King first came to national attention in the '70's, and along with him were Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and (including him because I must) John Saul. Since the '70's, more writers have been taking on the topics of monsters as well as the supernatural. Vampire popularity is a sine wave, rising and falling but never quite going away altogether. Then there are the zombies, the werewolves, and thanks to M. Night Shyamalan who reintroduced the ghost story with The Sixth Sense, spirits, vengeful and otherwise, as well as demons, are a mainstay.

I know these are uneasy times on the home front (not to mention the rest of the global community) and so in light of King's observations, our current cornucopia of not only horror movies, but TV shows, books, and graphic novels is no surprise.

But I would venture to throw in a little bit of hope. With the onslaught of scary movies has also been a rise in the number of superhero flicks. The amount of hope generated by beings who have superpowers and use them to protect us mere mortals is both satisfying and a relief. Maybe as great a pressure-relief valve as the horror movies that give us a basically safe place to deal with fear.

These are unsettling times and it will be interesting to see what kinds of stories result from this uneasiness. I'll be looking forward to the ghost stories -but I'll also be looking forward to the superheroes. (And not just because the guys are always so hot!) While the ghost stories give me a place to deal with fear, the superheroes give me hope and usually, a bunch of laughs, too. We all cope the best way we know how. Ghosts and superheroes? I'm there.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Comfortable With the Dead?


One week ago was Halloween, and six days ago was All Saints' Day, or, in Mexico, The Day of the Dead. Jim and I are currently taking conversational Spanish classes, and our instructor, a very fun and funny gentleman named Rene, talked about The Day of the Dead a little bit in class. I've seen pictures of it and it's been featured in movies, but I don't know very much about it.

I know that Japanese culture also has its particular time to honor ancestors who have gone before, although the Obon festival lasts more than one day and usually happens in July or August.

Both traditions include visiting the cemetery and bringing offerings to relatives who no longer walk the earth. Sometimes meals are eaten there. The grave sites are also spruced up during the celebration.

And all of this got me thinking - are people of other cultures on to something that our western culture used to have but somehow lost? A little over a hundred years ago, people in this country just seemed more, well, "used to" the concept of death. Dead relatives were waked in their own homes. Portraits were taken, sometimes posing those no longer alive next to their living, breathing family members. Nowadays, portraits like that disturb the heck out of us - I admit it. Memento Mori portraits are something I generally avoid unless I'm being macabre or have a reason to look at them. But why is that?

We have separated ourselves from the idea of death to the point where I think our culture is obsessed with youth and the idea of living forever. We kind of ignore the fact that all of us are going to go at some point or other, and focusing on that is considered maudlin or depressing or any number of things, none of which are very good. Stephen King once joked about how separated we have become from death and how we can remedy that by suggesting field trips to an undertaker, rather like a fast food outing, where children could learn about what happens after death. He added in his typical dark humor that the highlight of the trip would be "the viewing of the McCorpse."

I went to my first wake when I was about seven and I was so overwhelmed (and not in a good way) by viewing the body up close and personally that I needed weeks to process the vision out of my head. I wasn't scared the way I was when I watched a horror movie. And I wasn't sad because I didn't know the person except by name. But the glimpse of a dead body in a casket stayed with me for a very long time and even years later just the sight of a casket, even closed, would bring everything back to me in unhappy fashion. I wonder if kids growing up with their great-grandparents being waked in their own homes didn't have a better handle on the reality of death.

I write about dead people a lot. It's my job and one I generally enjoy doing. On the other hand, writing what I do forces me to focus on dying, death, all attendant procedures and props (like wakes, funerals, gravestones, and the like) and what may (or may not) happen after one has shuffled off Shakespeare's mortal coil. And sometimes I'm fine with it, and sometimes, being a product of my culture, I become depressed.

But in the end, death is just another part of life, right? Someone else's passing, our own - no one gets out of here alive, as they say. I don't know if I can pull off Robert Louis Stevenson's "Glad did I live and gladly die," but I sure hope to exit in peace and with grace.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Ghost Tour, Naperville - and An Announcement

 Free to Use & Public Domain Jack O’ Lantern Clip Art - Page 2

Since it's Halloween, it seemed only appropriate to write about the ghost tour that Jim and I took with great friends Terri Reid (and spouse) and Donnie Light (and spouse) and a bunch of other buddies. We went on the ghost tour featuring the nearby town of Naperville, Illinois. And it was a blast.

Our guide was a very dramatic gentleman, ghost hunter, and story-teller named Kevin, and he was aided by a sweetheart named Arielle. Between the two of them, we were guided to different sites close to downtown Naperville to learn about tragedies from over a hundred years ago all the way through one that just happened within the last ten or so years. All of which gave rise to a haunted location. 

There was a monstrous train crash that took over forty lives, and some of those poor folks are still wandering the area where they died, totally bewildered about what happened to them. There was a residential-type house, one that once was a thriving business, that is occupied by a very dark entity. There was a little girl who haunts a grade school, although no one knows very much about her story: just that she turns up as a pink-clad little thing in pictures. I know Terri Reid is probably writing about this adventure over at her blog and undoubtedly doing a far better job than I can!

But there was one thing that Kevin said that still echoes in me because I (and Michael Penfield) know that he is right. Your house is haunted. He went on to talk about the footsteps you hear overhead when you know you're home alone, about the sounds of things moving that can't be explained by a draft or an open window, about the chill you sometimes get when you're in the middle of a heated home. Ghosts are everywhere, he claims. And Michael Penfield would agree with him. And actually, so would my mother. (Having your own mother tell you that ghosts are everywhere when you're growing up in a haunted house is quite the treat, let me tell you!) I know the skeptics would mock this, but inside of me, I know this is true. They are everywhere, and why shouldn't they be? They don't have the laws of physical existence limiting them any longer. And energy is everywhere.

That said, if you want to know more about Naperville and its ghost stories, I would encourage going on one of these walking tours. They're fun. They're educational. And unfortunately, they won't resume again until the spring. But keep them in mind!

As for the announcement, well, I would like you all to know that Cassie and Michael have a new adventure available at Amazon. It's shorter, a novella of about 30,000 words, but it is a ghost story and it does involve using their particular gifts to help resolve a particular type of problem. The story is titled A Trace of Ghost, and I hope you enjoy it. Review me, please, if you do!

Hunting Spirits is also available again, with different cover art. This one is a short ghost story and involves a teen named AJ Podalak, the daughter of a famous ghost hunter, and a vengeful spirit. If you haven't read this already, enjoy!

Monday, October 24, 2016

So, Clowns


Since this is the month for all things scary, I decided to write about something I have been scared of nearly all my life. This rates right up there with wax figures, maybe even higher. Clowns.

Just for the heck of it, I looked up a history on clowns and I guess white-face clown makeup began with a gentleman named Joseph Grimaldi. Clown humor is based on slapstick or physical antics, along with ridiculous or foolish reactions to situations.

I have never in my life found clowns to be funny.

When I was about three or four, my parents took our family to a circus. I have a dim recollection of crowds of people, and of the packed-in seating. I remember that we were placed in the front section, and that is crucial. Because most of what I remember is that we were close enough for interaction, and at some point a clown came up and got in my face.

I'm sure that is not what this poor man was trying to do. Undoubtedly, he saw a little kid and decided to try playing with her to make her laugh. So he got close and began making faces at me, probably going for a belly laugh or at least a good-natured giggle.

What he got instead was a flat-out shriek. I think that may be the only time in my life that I ever really screamed. And I mean scream. I could sense his dismay at my reaction, but since his face was completely covered with thick greasepaint make-up, a ridiculous nose, and painted on mouth and eyebrows, he certainly couldn't convey that to me. I was getting dismay messages mixed with a happy-face expression and that made no sense at all to my little four-year-old brain.

Also, his face didn't fricking move. No movement whatsoever through all that cosmetic layering. The only things that did move were his eyes. His eyes were totally alive, but his face -and although I was pretty young at the time, I did understand this-  was totally dead. No movement. No expression except for clown-face. Nothing. I don't remember if he tried talking to me. I wouldn't have heard him anyway.

Ever since then, I have had an automatic reaction of both fear and revulsion when it comes to clowns. I don't like seeing them in circuses or parades. I don't think I would enjoy their performances in rodeos. And I know for sure I would never own clown art. (There is a place up north in my beloved Door County that advertises clown paintings: SERIOUSLY????)

So I know why I fear clowns. The news stories of clowns beckoning to children, inviting them to come into the woods, brings up a hunting instinct in me I never knew I had. When it was announced that John Gacy used to dress up as a clown, I couldn't help thinking that of course he did. And then, no surprise, Stephen King unleashed Pennywise on the world and that was that.

One good thing, I share this fear with a pretty awesome dude:

In the meantime, I'd like to know what about them scares everyone else who shares this fear. Or maybe even the phobia.They're supposed to be funny and playful? Why are they terrifying?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Would You Spend the Night Here?

The idea of spending the night in a haunted house on purpose or on a dare probably dates back centuries. Well, maybe not, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did. Haunted houses and ghosts have long been considered entertainment. Mary Shelley's blockbuster Frankenstein came about when she and several other guests at Lord Byron's estate challenged each other to write the scariest story possible. And that was back in the early nineteenth century.

These days, paranormal investigators spend nights in haunted houses on a regular basis during the course of their hunts for evidence of the spectral. Actively seeking out paranormal evidence as opposed to locking oneself in a bedroom with the covers drawn protectively over one's head is undoubtedly different than the original dares of sleeping in a haunted house. Nevertheless, there are so many reality shows based on overnights in haunted or disturbed surroundings that daring someone to do just that has probably lost some of its original luster and sting.

So I started thinking about that: would I spend the night in a haunted house? Two answers came to mind. First off, if you consider the house where I grew up, I have spent countless nights in a haunted house. Secondly, my answer would probably be "no, thank you." I could say been there, done that, but it's more accurate to say that I'm too much of a chicken to do it. Truly. The idea of running into a ghost terrifies me, even though I write about them, research them, watch shows about them, enjoy stories about them, and even live with a family who have all seen them. No matter how I look at it, ghosts scare the dickens out of me as much as I am fascinated by them.

But a haunted house isn't the only venue on the list of possibilities. Would you spend the night in a cemetery? In the Egyptian Hall of a museum, surrounded by mummies and sarcophogi? How about in a funeral home? Or a morgue (even empty)? Creepy ideas, right? 

Well, here's my line in the sand. Overnighting in a haunted place is one thing. But I absolutely would not be able to spend the night in a wax museum. Of all the everyday places that I find frightening, wax museums, or any place having those lifelike figures, are the absolute no-go for moi. Mannequins don't bother me. But realistic, usually historical figures done up in wax and accurate down to the last detail are another story. In my book, Dead Voices, there is a scene where Cassie takes Michael along to a haunted bed-and-breakfast and he refuses to even set foot in the place, due to what he can see. That's about how I feel when it comes to wax museums.

My family took a road trip to Canada when I was maybe five years old, or so. It was a long drive and while I know we saw Niagara Falls, and took a guided hiking tour and boat tour through some sort of forested canyon with a river running through it, the thing that stuck with me the most was the wax museum we visited. I can't even tell you what city it was in, whether Montreal, Quebec, or Toronto. (Sad, I realize, but I was only five.) At any event, I remember life-size, life-like figures everywhere with eyes that followed your every movement and faces that looked to be on the brink of becoming animated. Maybe even saying something. I think I held one of my parents' hands the entire time.

I didn't think much about that afterward, at least not consciously. But I do remember that when a smaller version of The London Royal Wax Museum opened in Old Town in Chicago, I would detour around it. If someone suggested going there, I would come up with an alternative. I never set foot in the place and I know it is no longer there, which is fine with me.

On the other hand, Jim and I took a trip to the British Isles to celebrate his completion of a long-term job in Texas, and the last stop on the tour we booked was at Warwick Castle. The castle itself is well-preserved and beautifully decorated. It's kind of like a Renaissance Faire, but on steroids. People in periodic clothing abound: women in floor-length dresses and men in jerkins and leggings were everywhere. We were even lucky enough to see the actual firing of the castle's trebuchet. That was fun! But the interior of the castle, at the time we visited, also boasted "living scenes" from the middle ages. "Living scenes" meant that not only did they have a stable, for instance, but they also included a horse and a blacksmith. And much to my dismay, these beings were made of wax. Every entire living scene included wax figures. Worse, they had animated them, so that the horse would turn its head or twitch an ear. The figures of people were breathing, for petesake. And the lighting was a lot dimmer than I would have wanted.

I rushed Jim through the entire exhibit like a whirlwind, never mind that he wanted to stop and read the plaques or displayed descriptions at each scene, or that he might want to check out the detail at every tableau. I was trying to get out before any of those things not only turned its head or blinked but also stepped over the cords that roped off each display and started coming after me. I mean, they were all life-sized and some of them were armed. I didn't want to be around when they came to life. I didn't want Jim stuck in there when that happened, either.

He didn't say anything about how rapidly we took in that one part of the castle, but I did feel compelled to explain myself once we were safely outside in the sunlight. I had actually forgotten how much wax figures bothered me, and now that I've seen them as an adult, the memory has no chance of fading away. If Jim ever wants to go to Madame Tussaud's, he is definitely on his own.

So of all the scary places people might be dared to spend the night, if I wasn't alone you might be able to get me to stay at a museum, or a cemetery. Maybe even a morgue. But a wax museum? Not on your or my life. I don't care what anyone says about them: those places are not safe. And those figures are not just pretend. 

And I knew that even before seeing anything featuring Vincent Price or written by  Rod Serling.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Book I Indeed Did Finish


Some time after I published last week's blog post, I sat down and finished the book, Lisey's Story. It is a hard story: hard to get into, hard to read, and definitely hard to look away from, in the end. It's brilliant. And I will probably never read it again.

Lisey's Story is about a woman who is two years past the death of her beloved husband Scott Landon, an acclaimed, successful, and wealthy author. Note that this book is dedicated to Mr. King's wife, Tabitha. I think this one is autobiographical in certain aspects, and also touches again on the theme of an adoring but absolutely insane fan. I hate to think of what sort of insanity has visited Mr. King's life because of his success.

During the course of this book, we learn that Scott's books are sourced from a real and magical place, a place that he can access and one that he teaches Lisey to find. If the word "magical" gives rise to images of good wizards and unicorns, rainbows and fairies, also keep in mind that this book is written by Stephen King, after all. The magic is there in beauty and lusciously scented flowers and healing waters, but there are also beasts, poison, and at least one huge and deadly monster.

Monsters are a theme throughout this book. Scott comes from a family of them, and this is slowly revealed to the reader as Lisey begins the work of cleaning up her husbands papers and starts to remember, with reluctance, what he has told her about the family that both birthed him and nearly killed him. There is a monster of a fan that tries to end Scott's life. And there is the monster who takes up where that deranged fan left off.

Lisey, in the mean time is dealing with her own inner demons: grief, loss, pain, rage, and the realization that there is an answering sort of madness in her own family that will match up to that in Scott's. And that madness is both death and salvation.

I had a hard time reading this book. For me, it's unlike anything else I've ever read by Mr. King, and that's saying something, since his works span quite a gamut of extraordinary and paranormal premises. Still, in the end, dang him, he was talented enough and skilled enough to pull me into the story and keep me hanging on until the end. I couldn't look away. But this wasn't a train wreck. This is amazing, gripping writing from one of the biggest talent's of our age. It takes his kind of magic to pull off that sort of trick: keep a reader hooked enough to see the story through. Like Lisey, in the end I had no choice but to reach the inescapable conclusion. If you've read the book, you'll understand when I say that Mr. King sets the reader off on a bool. Does the prize at the end make it worth the  journey? As hard as it is to realize, I would have to say that the answer is "yes." Of course, I'm a fan of Stephen King. Not his Number One fan, but a fan.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. And I'd be interested in hearing from anyone else who has read this and who bought into its spell. I'd love to compare notes.

Would I ever read this again? Probably not.

Will I ever forget it? Never.

Monday, October 3, 2016

That Book You Can't Finish

I grew up with the idea that if I started reading a book, I absolutely needed to finish it. I used to think it was a Catholic grade school thing, but I've run into lots of non-Catholics who have the same, well, neurosis. If I start reading this, I need to finish it. Even if I hate it. Even if I borrowed it from the library and didn't spend any money on it. Even if I probably won't remember it three hours after I finish it. Or worse, even if I'll remember it for the rest of my life because the experience of reading it was so horrible. Anyone else out there have this internal argument going on from time to time? A show of hands?

At the moment, I am almost in the middle of a book by one of my favorite writers, Mr. Stephen King. And I'm struggling with it. I borrowed it from the library, so if I don't finish it, no worries about paying for something that was never used. My husband tried it first but said he was having trouble getting into it, so we swapped books (I had a Longmire book waiting for me) and now he's enjoying himself immensely with Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear, and I'm struggling with a 509-page King novel. 

I was in sixth grade when I ran across the first book I absolutely knew I could NEVER FINISH. And I even tried twice. It's a very popular book that was made into a very popular movie and yet I could never get past the first one-third of it. I tried every trick I already knew to get myself to read it in entirety. I tried it from the beginning twice, as noted. I read the end and tried going backwards to see  how the protagonist got to the point where the story ended. Nope, that was a no-go also. I picked spots randomly in the middle of the book and tried to go both forwards and backwards and that didn't help either. And I guess that's about when I realized I would never finish the dang thing. And, boy, did I feel guilty. I "confessed" to people from time to time that I never read the whole book, and found to my surprise, I think, that no one called me a sinner over the issue. Most of them either said, "Really? I love that book!" or "I never read it.", as well as "I never read it, but I saw the movie." 

And I began to realize that maybe it was okay if I didn't finish that novel. The writer was excellent: her word accuracy and her descriptions were amazing. But none of that was enough to get me past the "I really hate this main character" problem I was having.

Fast forward to where I am now, and I routinely stop reading a book if it's not reaching me. I figure that 1) time is short, and there are a ton of books I want/need to read so I'm not going to battle through one that's never going to work for me, and 2) I apparently am not on the same vibe or wavelength as the author for this to work for me. And actually, being honest with myself about that has helped me when one of my books receives a review where the reader is pretty much saying that: "This book was okay, nothing to write home about" and "Not my cup of tea." (The horrid ones where the reader simply writes how dreadful the work is but doesn't explain why are a separate issue.)

So now I'm looking at this Stephen King book and thinking, will this be the one King novel I never quite finish? It's as well-written as anything he's ever done. Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised if this one wasn't somewhat autobiographical as well. But there is a strange, discordant vibration to this one with notes that are hitting me just to the left of my own true perfect pitch. And I don't know why that is. I'm certainly curious enough to want to know what's actually going on, and why. But I don't know if the curiosity I have at this point is enough to see it through. And that's weird for me because he's one of my favorite authors. Still, that doesn't mean we'll always agree on everything. For example, I know he writes -or at least used to- to AC/DC and while I write to music, AC/DC isn't on my playlist. More power to both of us, for finding the music that nudges our muses along.

I'll take a few more cracks at the work, but I may not make it all the way to Oz on this one. And that's okay. Fortunately, Stephen King has a ton of books out there and I haven't read all of them. Maybe it's not such a horrible thing if this one slips past me just a little.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ghosts in a Cemetery

The idea of a haunted cemetery is a cliche.

Cemeteries, by mere concept, are scary places for people who fear running into someone who is dead but somehow still popping up for a visit. (I am excluding zombies and vampires from this, by the way. I don't generally use the term "un-dead" when talking or writing about ghosts, simply because zombies and vampires are still walking around in their own dead bodies, and that's something quite different from the manifestation of a dead person's spirit.) If you are someone who believes that a person--or at least some aspect of a person--survives physical death, then a cemetery could indeed be a scary place. Especially if it's old, or has a lot of mausoleums, or - biggest cliche of all- has tombstones that are tilting or fallen over.

I also associate cemeteries with scary things and I have used them in my own work. Bridgeton Park Cemetery, which is based on a real cemetery or two close to where I live, has been popping up in my work since I wrote Dead of Summer years and years ago. My short story, Hunting Spirits (soon to be made available again!) begins in a cemetery. When I told my webmaster that I wanted my website and matching business cards to be "eerie", he immediately went with a cemetery-based theme.

When I was a little kid, there was a cemetery some miles north of my house that we would pass when we were bringing my non-driving uncle back to his residence after dinner with my family. I was (and still am) a sucker for a car ride, so I usually went along. And when we passed that cemetery, I would squeeze my eyes shut and not look until we were safely past it. I found out years later that the cemetery was actually the site of one of Chicago's most historical hauntings, but I didn't know that when I was a kid. I just thought the place was creepy.

Yet, as I have spent more time researching-, talking and writing about-, meeting people who see-, and collecting-, experiences about ghosts, the more I think that no ghost in his or her right mind would bother haunting a cemetery. The places keep regular hours and close at 5 pm, or 7 pm, or at dark, and a lot of them have locking gates. Why would a ghost hang around someplace where no one was ever going to see him? What would be the point? Better to turn up in someone's mirror at home, or in someone's basement, or even someone's car, don't you think? At least there would be some sort of reaction to that type of a visit.

Fall is approaching and if I turn my head to look out the window, I see the tree branches bending and swaying with a fairly brisk breeze, scattering already-browned leaves all over the grass and turning their branches into the bony, skeletal arms I will see until spring returns long months from now. I've read many times over that fall is when the "veil between two worlds" is the thinnest, when those denizens of the afterlife can more easily cross between their domain and ours. Halloween is a celebration of that. And I'm seeing ads already for holiday decor: witches, black cats, tombstones, and ghosts. These are the days, the times, when my stories make the most sense to me; the days and long nights filled with more than just darkness and autumn moons.  

And although I know that the ghost tour I'm going on at the end of October will more than likely include a cemetery, I think the scariest stuff I'll run into will not include any cemeteries. Meeting a ghost in one's own bedroom is a lot scarier, don't you think?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking for Cassie

My good friend and amazing writer, Terri Reid, once told me that when she writes a Mary O' Reilly story, she keeps two pictures close-by, each of which represents how she sees her characters Mary O' Reilly and Bradley Alden in her own mind.

I used to think I was nuts for clipping out a picture of an Avon model (I kid you not) that struck me as Michael Penfield as soon as I saw him. Truly. I was going through an Avon catalog and ran into this amazingly nice-looking young man who took my breath away because my brain started screaming "It's Michael Penfield!!!!!!" I tore the picture out of the catalog and stored it away in one of my writing folders, to be taken out and looked at for inspiration, or to show someone else what Michael looks like in my mind. Since that time, I have collected three or four more copies of the same picture and I am thrilled by that. The more Michael, the better!

And thank you Terri Reid for showing me that I'm not the only one who does this!

HOWEVER, I have no such model for Cassie Valentine. All I know about her is that she is on the shorter side, has long dark hair with a bit of a wave to it, has brown eyes, and she might look a bit like a gypsy. And I don't know anyone, nor have I ever seen anyone, who looks like that. EVER. 

And it's not like I'm not looking. I'm always looking. I constantly assess assorted actors and models, including the ones who are not known by name but have been photographed in ads for anything from mascara to tampons. Seriously. Cassie is still out there in the ether, coming to me in fits and starts but never all at once, like her amazingly gorgeous boyfriend. (Incidentally, the model for Michael doesn't have a scar but that's no problem whatsoever. Trust me.)

I know what Nick looks like. I know exactly what Steve looks like. I have a pretty good idea for Eloise. But Cassie, my main protagonist, remains in silhouette form, which is pretty weird. She's probably the main character in the  Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series and somehow remains, well, faceless.

Believe me, I look for my characters incessantly. While I was writing my one and only sword-and-sorcery fantasy (and everyone should be grateful I only tried to write one) I ran into one of my characters at a bar. Well, I didn't run into him. I caught a glimpse of him across the bar while he was taking a break from playing darts and ordering a beer. And like seeing Michael in an Avon catalogue, it made me catch my breath for just a moment. It's a little mind-boggling to see someone you've only pictured in your own head walking around in reality. Jarring, mind-boggling, but at the same time, very nice.

So here's the thing: if any of you have an idea what Cassie actually looks like and can suggest the name of a famous person, or somehow send me a pic to the email at my website, let me know. I'd be curious to see how all of you picture her! (So is Michael...)

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Hooker Lives

Some days ago, I was cleaning out part of my old office and ran across a manuscript for a short story I wrote back in 2009 or maybe 2010. At the time, I was on the board and planning committee for the Love is Murder Mystery Writers/Readers Conference. Also at that time, the Love is Murder event was regularly joined by a group out of Chicago called Twilight Tales.

I had never heard of them before I started doing the conference. By then, it had been over twenty years since I had moved out of the city and they started up long after I left. But I started getting to know the group and I'm very glad I did. Back then, the Twilight Tales group met upstairs in a bar on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, not far from DePaul University. They invited authors to come in and read from their works, sell books, and do signings. They encouraged anyone who came to write and share their work. And they had open mic nights, where audience members could get up and read a story or part of one, whatever they might be working on. The group was called Twilight Tales because the subjects of the stories tended to be based in horror. They could be funny stories, or grotesque, or flat-out disturbing, but every effort was applauded and the setting was friendly and encouraging.

One year, someone in the group asked me how long it took me to write a short story. "How short?" I asked. About two thousand words, I was told. My answer, at that time, was a few hours. And then to my delight, they invited me to participate in one of their theme nights. On a theme night, every writer wrote a story based on the same topic, and then got up and read it. They needed six writers and I was the sixth one they asked. The theme I was handed? None other than The Hooker Lives.

Apparently someone got tired of the hooker in all the movies getting killed off, whether or not she had an inner heart of gold. So they decided that for that one evening, no matter what happened, the hooker was going to live.

The stories that came in were amazing. Hooker vs evil spirit, hooker vs. monster, hooker vs. violent and possessive ex-lover. I decided to do Hooker vs. Serial Killer and had a right good time writing and sharing it. All around, the entire evening was just a lot of fun, a chance to showcase and enjoy each other's creativity.

I guess my point in this blog piece is to tell anyone out there who is thinking about writing but doesn't know where to start, to pick a theme of some kind and then play with it until a story comes through. The Hooker Lives was a lot of fun, but hey, you can come up with any idea that sparks a variety of different ways to tell a story. How about What If That Character In A Horror Story Took Something Other Than a Flashlight? Or how about I Just Got A Voicemail From A Dead Friend, or Murder Mystery On The Holiday Of Your Choice as possibilities?

I'm a sucker for that kind of project because it's so much fun to see where people go when they take a basic idea and run. It's why I jumped at the chance when Donnie Light invited me to write a story for the anthology Lyrical Darkness. He said, "Take a song and write the dark story behind it." The shared stories were so much fun to read.

Anyhow, that's just what's on my writing mind at the moment. Hey, does anyone out there need a writer for a themed anthology?

(Thanks to Tina Jens, Eric Cherry, and Martel Sardina who let me play with them, and in memory of Andrea Dubnick, who was one of the originals.)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Say It Ain't So

So I am recording and watching the last season of SyFy's original paranormal reality show, Ghost Hunters, and loving and mourning every second of it. I was a little late coming to the show (maybe by about two years or so) but I became an avid and regular fan inside of one viewing. I watched every Ghost Hunter and Ghost Hunter International show that I could find. I bought the books written by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. I even dragged Jim along to see Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves do a presentation down in Joliet, Illinois. I am a fan-girl of the first order.

So I am a bit sad that the show is coming to an end. As far as I'm concerned, Ghost Hunters was an original and set the bar (and the requirements) for every paranormal investigation reality show that followed in its wake. And there were a lot: A Haunting; Paranormal State; Ghost Adventurers; Ghost Mine; Ghost Asylum; Deep South Paranormal; Haunted Alaska - what am  I missing? Any show that includes investigation seems to owe at least a partial debt to Ghost Hunters. They were the ones who introduced all of us to things like EMF detectors, Rem-Pods, laser grids, infrared cameras, and stationary video cameras set up to catch every nuance of a possible haunting.

And Ghost Hunters, at least to me, proved how seriously people took their trade by being invited to investigate not only personal homes, but historical sites like Gettysburg and the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, among a whole slew of others. The fact that a such locations would invite The Atlantic Paranormal Society in to investigate possible hauntings says quite a lot about the group.

In addition to all the super scientific equipment, the investigators themselves were great about injecting humor and a light-hearted element into the shows they taped, saving each episode from becoming overly serious or full of self-importance. There were wise-cracks and in-jokes for long-time viewers, and even some silliness, although maybe that was just the staff getting slap-happy from staying up all those night and wandering around in the dark with infrared vision. Whatever it was, it worked.

I guess that Mr. Hawes has suggested that there is still more out there for them to do. He is quoted as saying something about "huge things to come," so I hope that's true.

In the meantime, I'll watch the last episodes and catch repeats if they have them so that I can remember the group of people who let me tag along on their investigations in the best way possible: in the comfort and safety of my own home -with all the lights on.

Thanks, gang.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Paranormal Explosion

Years ago, think the late '90's, I had a job that allowed me access to the Internet and also afforded me chunks of downtime. Since I was still relatively new to quick Internet access (we had dial-up at home: remember all those weird sounds it would make when it was connecting?) I would sometimes get online and search for ghost stories. There was one site in particular that I really liked and I spent my free time reading ghost stories related by people from all over the country.

Since that time and the invention of search engines, looking for ghost stories brings up an amazing result. Just like when I was at that job, sometimes I will search for "ghost stories" or "paranormal" or specific things like "Sasquatch" or "mermaids." And I am always blown away by the lists and pages that pop up on any of those topics.

Before I sat down to write this, I looked up "ghost stories." Holy Halloween, Batman! There were pages and pages of sites offering true ghost stories, videos, ghost hunts, pictures, and all manner of things paranormal. Note: I already know that looking up "supernatural" leads straight to my beloved TV series so I don't use that as a topic when I'm searching.

Anyone having access to the Destination America network, and who actually watches it (and why wouldn't you? They just picked up The Haunted Collector's old shows!) will have seen an advertisement for yet another website: Destination America's very own The I spent a little time trying to find it and learned that you have to type in "Destination America" as well as the website name. But I found it. Lots of videos and excerpts from shows like A Haunting. I plan to check it out from time to time to see if they ever pick up anything not related to television.

In the meantime, I have a folder of bookmarked paranormal articles and sites that have caught my attention and that I might want to visit again. This is related to the file of actual newspaper clippings and magazine articles that I have about ghosts, hauntings, and unexplained phenomena. I keep the file on a shelf close to a slew of books about true ghost stories. And every Halloween I peruse the newspapers and the Internet to see what comes up. It's nice to have a holiday related to all of this - it's like an early Christmas for paranormal aficionados!

So I continue to add to my collection of article and books and online sites.

But I don't want any more dead people hanging around my office, so I will never again bookmark any site having to do with memento mori. Pictures of people who are dead and then posed in a studio are just a little too disturbing for me. But you don't have to take my word for it. Go ahead and search "memento mori" and see what pops up. Or pops into your house...

Monday, August 15, 2016

Dream a Little Dream

The Amazon jungle is humid, heavy with moisture. Trees grow close enough to filter or even block sunlight. Moisture drips from leaves and vines. Creatures rustle through the brushy undergrowth, and close inspection will reveal myriad insects living their busy lives along tree trunks, branches, fronds, roots, underfoot, and overhead. Strange calls and sounds, different from those heard in a city or even a farm, vibrate all around, some from a distance, some from mere inches away. The jungle is alive and brimming with both the strange and the familiar. And it is an easy place to die.

It is thus also a desirable place to set up a lab focused on classified work, away from prying eyes, unanswerable questions, and the majority of investigative journalists. Some things are better not hidden in plain sight.

Dr. Marie Gomer and Dr. Lisette Esterly had grown accustomed to the razor wire-topped fences around the compound, the armed Marine escort when they walked just seven hundred yards from their living quarters to the drab concrete building that was the lab itself, the feeling of dense isolation and being at the ends of the earth. The entire place was routinely sprayed for insects, but that didn't seem to make much of a difference. Everyday they battled their way through swarms of small and irritating buzzing things, overnight webs, and the ever-present moisture in the air that left Dr. Gomer's hair in strings, and turned Dr. Esterly's to frizz. They were even used to that.

But things were finally falling into place. Even Sgt. Hanes, the huge, no-nonsense Marine who was their escort, was finally beginning to relax enough to smile at Dr. Esterly's daily cheerful "good morning."

The lab at the end of their short walk was air-conditioned and clean and quiet, and if it hadn't been neither woman believed she would have tolerated their situation for very long. But the research itself, categorized as micro- biophysiology, was fascinating, and in a matter of weeks they had both settled into a comfortable routine with each other and with their lab assistants.  Time flew and even though Dr. Gomer felt that she would like to leave as soon as her six-month rotation was up, she found herself wondering if she might re-up for the next session.

The afternoon seemed dark when they left the lab, carefully locking the door behind them. Their assistants had long since departed, and Dr. Esterly looked for Sgt. Hanes who was not waiting for them in his usual spot. She was about to call out his name when Dr. Gomer put a silencing hand on her arm and pointed. 

Several yards away, they saw the sergeant's cap lying upside down on the grass. That was not something that would happen if Sgt. Hanes had anything to say about it. As they looked further, they realized there were footprints in the intermittent patches of soft ground that was not covered over with the various greens of native foliage. They both crept up to the helmet, realizing something was wrong, not sure what to make of the soldier's desertion. Duty was his middle name: being absent from his post spoke volumes, none of it good.

When they reached the helmet, they were astonished to see one of his boots several yards ahead. In unspoken agreement, they began to follow what became a trail of discarded items: the cap; the boot; a glove; his sunglasses; and then most disturbing of all, first his knife and then his rifle. They looked at each other. The jungle noises seemed muffled to them, and a feeling of foreboding grew with the clouds that were threatening to swallow the sun.

Several more yards and they both stopped. Sitting on a camp stool, leaning against the wall of an outbuilding, were what looked like the rest of Sgt. Hanes's uniform. The camouflage pants and shirt, even the  socks and one boot looked as if they were left in place while the Sgt. somehow walked out of them. The shirt was buttoned. The belt was buckled. And then they realized what was holding the uniform in place.

Inside the clothing, as well as protruding up where his head should have been, the scientists saw Sgt. Hanes's skin. The skull-less face above the shirt collar looked like a collapsed flesh-colored balloon with holes where the eyes, nose, and mouth should have been. Boneless hands lay flaccid beneath the sleeves, still attached to the skin of his arms. His feet were equally deflated, the socks lying loosely around the flattened flesh.

The sergeant appeared to have melted. Dr. Esterly said it first, but Dr. Gomer frowned. No, she disagreed with her colleague. It's more like he molted...

This is the kind of dream I have when I'm not actively writing.  I have always wondered if other writers do this, too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Missing: One Muse

There are times a writer has to search, dig, and tunnel for words. And don't kid yourself: sometimes using TNT comes to mind as well. Some people call it "writer's block." Since I have heard that phrase applied to everything from "I don't know what to write about" to "I don't know how to tell this story" by way of "I don't really know what I'm doing here," I prefer to use the much more scientific term of stuck.

After I finish a piece of fiction, I always land squarely in the land of stuck. I guess that means I need to re-charge, but it also puts me in awe of writers like Stephen King (well, I'm usually in awe of him anyway) or John Grisham, who start a new project immediately after finishing the last. My brain can't even wrap itself around that idea. Whenever I come close to finishing something and I think, hey, this would probably be a good time to begin blocking out the next book, my brain responds consistently with the same question: "You want me to what?" And there it is.

Since I released BPC 3, Drawing Vengeance, I have also released two novellas. One was Missing Persons, the sequel to Saving Jake. The other was A Scattering of Bones, a Kindle World story for Terri Reid's Mary O' Reilly Kindle World. I finished that story early in June. Today is the last single-digit day in August, and my brain is still asking me the same question. You want me to what?

I write about my muse from time to time, usually in complaint mode and I suppose I ought to stop that. Maybe she'd come back to me sooner if I didn't complain about her so much. On the other hand, when she's here, she is frequently giving -no, make that throwing- ideas at me that have nothing to do with the next book. They are ideas that will find their way into books at least one more down the road, sometimes farther. In other words, not super-helpful to me at this particular time. Yet, that has never stopped her. So I sit here, trying to find the entry point to BPC 4, and she is playing with ideas for BPC 5. It is something that is both comforting and annoying. That is, when she's here at all. She hasn't been around for some time and I am tired of trying to find her. 

On the other hand, I have not been faithful to the one thing that I know a lot of my hero writers do when they are writing a book. They read. Having just renewed my library card, I know that I should take a drive and pick out my usual six novels and get started. I have heard of writers who don't read while they are actively writing, fearing the influence of other's styles. But I have found that I tend to, well, dry up if I don't have input from any number of different writers. As Mr. King once said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write." That may sound weird, but I consider words to be an actual flowing substance, and if I'm not submersed in them, then my own tend to wither away and disappear. 

So my next step in taking another stab at book 4 will be to ignore it entirely, and spend some serious time reading instead. Reading someone else's work, especially when it's magical, makes me want to touch that same magic again. And then my muse returns as if by invitation, and work begins . And hopefully, when she does come back this time, the work will be done very quickly.

That way I can find myself once more smack dab in the land of stuck.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Some Things Are Better Left Untried - Except Maybe One

In spite of all my years of reading books about ghosts, writing them, interviewing people with stories to tell, collecting tales from people who stop by my desk at author signings, I have never once in my life participated in a seance. Not even at a pajama party.

Some of the stories I've collected have been from people who have attended at least one seance. Like the story I heard where a group of girls were listening as one talked about a dead firefighter and then the candle in the middle of the table, the only light in the dark room, extinguished itself and fell over. The room was filled with darkness and fear and screaming girls, and I don't blame them.

(Note: several of the ghost stories I've been told are about dead firefighters: I wonder why that is?)

In all my years of reading books and collecting stories about scary urban (or not) legends, I've never tried any of them. I'm not close enough to any of the railroad crossings where you can park your car across the tracks in the dead of night and have it pushed out of harm's way. If the car has been sprinkled with baby powder or flour, you can see the hand prints of the ghostly children who have saved both your life and your car, the reason being that these unfortunate children were killed in a school bus that stalled out while crossing the same train tracks. I think I've read of two different railroad crossings that boast this particular phenomenon but I don't live near either of them.

I have never tried going into a dark bathroom and saying "Bloody Mary" or the alternative "I believe in Bloody Mary" three times while looking into the mirror to have her appear and scratch out my eyes. I do know someone who tried it and stopped immediately after saying it twice - after she noticed an image showing up in the mirror as she looked into it. (And it was too dark to see her own reflection.)

I have never tried -and this is probably the one thing I want to do- looking for the ghost lights in Marfa, Texas or Chapel Hill, Tennessee or Brown Mountain, North Carolina or the Upper Peninsula, Michigan. But I would. I have a friend who went up to see the lights in Michigan. She told me it was colder than all get-out and that she saw them at around one o'clock in the morning so she was both tired and freezing. But she also said that it was well worth it, because in that part of the UP, as they call it, you are in the middle of nowhere. Just you and a road and the dark and these unexplained lights. And the lights move. They gave her chills that were unrelated to the air temperature. And in the Upper Peninsula, like everywhere else this happens, no one can quite explain the lights. Swamp gas doesn't cut it in a place like Michigan in winter, and distant headlights from cars or even trains don't make sense; the lights have been reported since before cars were invented or the railroads were in place. Some of these locations are nowhere near railroad tracks anyway.

Yes, I would go do that.

But a seance? No way. They are too much like the Ouija board to me: you never know you who might be connecting with.

And Bloody Mary? Ditto. I already worry about seeing someone else in a mirror with me. I don't need anything nasty popping up and then scratching out my eyes. I'm waaaayyyyy too chicken to try that.

But the lights -  now, those I would try going to see, in any of the above places if I happen to be there at some point. They sound fascinating. The pictures I've seen have been a little unnerving-but in a good way, somehow- and seeing the lights would be an experience I could add to my memory card catalog. 

Anyone want to come along?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Branson, Mo Has One Ghost Tour

 Old Cemetery - Cemeteries & Graveyards Photo (722641) - Fanpop

Continuing on the theme of taking a ghost tour every time I go somewhere new, something I wrote about last week, I thought I would talk about my latest adventure. And that would be in Branson, Missouri.

I have probably been a bit spoiled by my recent experiences. In the past two years, Jim and I have visited four cities down south: Williamsburg, VA; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC; and Gatlinburg, TN. We took a ghost tour in every one of them, and the thing was, we had to decide which ghost tour to take, not necessarily an easy thing to do based on Internet descriptions and some reviews. But we managed.

Cut to Branson, Missouri. We were there last week for a family vacation, and of course we needed to take a ghost tour. We figured, Missouri, that's the South, right? Why, yes it is. But multiple ghost tours? Needing to make a selection from a list of many? Not so much.

The first morning we were there, we went to the reception desk at our lodgings and asked the nice woman behind the counter for information on a Branson ghost tour. She sort of looked at us and blinked, maybe wondering if we were dangerous as well as crazy. But then she said that she didn't know of one, but we should talk to the gentleman at the other desk, since he knew more about events and excursions in the town. So we walked over to his desk, asked him the same question, and pretty much got the same reaction. He mentioned Eureka Springs, an old town over in Arkansas that is both gorgeous and boasts a very haunted hotel. We had already been to Eureka Springs many years ago, and even visited that hotel, although we hadn't taken the official ghost tour. It might not have existed yet at that time. Nevertheless, this was a short vacation we were on and we didn't have a full day -and night- to travel across state lines looking for spectres.

So he obligingly Googled ghost hunts in Branson for us and came up with one result. We took the phone number and thanked him with appreciation, but as we walked away from the desk, even Jim thought that was odd. "One?" he said to me. "Just one?"

Yup. To its credit, the founder of the tour and his wife have been doing supernatural investigations for years and were even featured once on the paranormal series A Haunting. (I used to watch those until it got to the point where I realized I had seen every episode. Maybe they're making new ones; I haven't looked into that yet.) Our tour guide began the evening by playing a little bit of the show so that we could see the expertise of the tour company owners. During the course of the evening, he also mentioned that his boss gets called out for supernatural problems on a regular basis. So yes, Branson is indeed haunted.

And well it should be. It was founded before the Civil War and withstood that conflict, but not without loss. After the War, the town was besieged with crime and violence, and the posse organized to restore order soon expanded into a mob that began to commit the very crimes they had once promised to stop. The gang was called the Bald Knobbers and before they were through, numbered as many as 1000 members. Although their violent acts drew national attention, they weren't disbanded until 1899 after their founder was assassinated. (The man who did the killing was tried and found not guilty by reason of self-defense.)

With that kind of history, there should have been a mob of ghosts hanging around on every street corner. Maybe there were but I never saw them because I didn't bring Cassie and Michael along with me. We took pictures and listened to stories. We saw enlargements of some of the pictures taken on that tour that were sent in by participants, and a few of them were seriously disturbing. One showed a woman sitting on the steps to a church, and the picture  included a very large shadowy figure standing just to her left.  A picture taken of a wall just adjacent to the church (that had been demolished earlier on the day that we took the tour) showed the silhouette of a young boy, purportedly the murdered son of a woman who was also murdered by the same serial killer. (The killer was caught in Texas, tried there for a similar murder, and executed. They say he confessed to about twenty murders all across the country. His story dates back to the later years of the twentieth century, so fairly recent history, compared to other parts of the town.)

The cemetery close to the heart of the city is a one-acre plot that was established by a very successful businessman back in the late 1800's. It is no longer an active cemetery (I use that term to mean a cemetery where people can still buy plots at this time; in the other sense of the word, it is quite active) and now is almost inaccessible thanks to some teenage vandals who went in one night and vandalized the graves of some of Branson's wealthier past citizens, including the man who founded the city himself. But you can take pictures through the wrought iron fence. I didn't; there was too strong a feeling around the area and I didn't want to have anything like that on my phone. (This is a trait I share with one of my Bridgeton Park Cemetery characters, by the way.) Our tour guide also mentioned that the cemetery had flooded early in the 1900's and tombstones and grave markers were washed away or destroyed. He showed us a large area of ground within that fenced-in acre that is filled with unmarked graves, although historians are working to restore identities to the dead who rest there.

As far as tours go, Branson's ghost tour wasn't as polished as some we have been on. Our tour guide was admittedly new - he had only been on the job for two months, but what he lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm and honest belief. (He did mention that he was a skeptic until he met his boss. Then things changed.) But as far as an eeriness factor goes, Branson was probably the creepiest one we've ever done. 

There is something unsettled in that land, something uneasy and dark. Maybe it's the history. Maybe it's the nature of the spirits that tend to hang around that particular town. I'm not sure what it was, but I came away with the very strong sense that quite a number of Branson's dead do not rest in peace.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Notes from a Ghost Tour

Every time I go someplace new, I try to take a ghost tour. Luckily, Jim is always willing to do that with me. He likes the history he learns that provides the background to most of the hauntings. And while he's savoring history and I've savoring the ghost part, I'm also taking notes. Looking back over some of them is both evocative and eyebrow-raising. Sometimes I remember exactly what I meant, and other times, well, I don't know.

For instance, I have notes about forensic students using dowsing rods at a body farm at the University of Tennessee. After finding sites of buried bodies, apparently the students willing to use dowsing rods to answer simple yes and no questions were 95% accurate in determining the body's gender, whether the head lay in the direction of North, South, East, or West, and whether the body was that of a child or an adult. The reason the tour guide (this was for haunted Gatlinburg) brought this up is that there is currently a trend in using dowsing rods to communicate with the dead.

Something I saw done live on a ghost tour in Galena, Illinois. (More on that a little later).

But back to Gatlinburg: the guide told us stories about one of the big hotels down the street from us. He did mention something that stuck in my head: "Not everyone knows about these events because not all incidents make the papers." I will find a way to use that in one of my books one day.

As for the dowsing rods in Galena, well, the tour guide for that particular trip also had an EMF (electromagnetic field) indicator and a ghost box (a contraption that picks up radio waves and is meant to give ghosts a way to communicate by picking out random words over the airwaves and spitting them out.) I know a ghost hunter who got a pretty solid "Get Out" on one of those things. They make me nervous.

On the tour in Williamsburg, our guide told us the story of a woman named Lady Skipworth who killed herself in the house of George Wythe. (George Wythe was the first Virginian to sign the Declaration of Independence, by the way). Supposedly there is the ghost of a woman spotted in the third-floor bedroom. Our guide then added that he has seen the ghost of a woman on the porch of the Wythe house, and that she backs up and disappears through the door.

And then there was Savannah, Georgia. Savannah was the first and probably only place where people discuss ghosts the same way they discuss the weather. Jim and I sat down to a wonderful Southern lunch at a restaurant in Savannah and when we mentioned we were taking the ghost tour that evening, he was prompt with a "You should get a lot out of that. You know that hotel in the next block? That place is haunted. I saw a woman on the staircase, there." And then he asked us if we needed hot sauce, ketchup, or anything else. No one in Savannah even bats an eyelid when you say you are looking for ghosts. They're more likely to direct you to the nearest haunted spot they know. Which could very easily be where you're standing and having the conversation. Savannah is a giant burial ground, from the Native Americans who were there first, to the sad mass graves of the plantation slaves, and then the dead from the wars that happened in the area, both Revolutionary and Civil.

The ghost tour through Charleston was interesting because the last story involved the inn where we had our rooms. Fortunately, we weren't on the right floor to run into the ghost. On the other hand, it was a little unsettling to find out that our temporary domicile was included on an actual ghost tour. I would have expected that in Savannah. But then Charleston is not that far away from Georgia.

This summer, we will be taking another family trip, this time to Missouri. And of course we will take a ghost tour. Just can't wait to see what kind of stories we get on that one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

On Reviewing Reviews - Like Attracts Like

I read my reviews. Maybe I shouldn't - I know authors who don't- but I do. I read all of them. When I'm feeling particularly cowardly, I have Jim read the new ones first. He'll either tell me it's a good one and have me read it right away, or he'll say, "You might want to read this one later," at which point I'll know I got a negative one. Some negative reviews can be helpful if the reviewer bothers to explain what he or she didn't like about my work. Some of them are what I call "drive-by" wherein the reviewer makes a statement like "This was bad" with no other explanation. At any event, I am lucky to have mostly positive reviews, and the really good ones light up my day.

A recent review, however, brought up a point that I had heard once before and I figured since I can't have a face-to-face with that reviewer, I would address the topic here.

The book in question is Haunted, book one of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series. What this reviewer wrote, and what one other person once said to me, is that he or she had a difficult time accepting that all the characters in my book believe in the paranormal. I guess that's a valid concern, although Haunted does feature Cassie's mother trying desperately not to accept the paranormal. (But perhaps that means she does believe in it after all?)

There are a few reasons that basically all the characters in Haunted believe in the supernatural.

For one thing, the people I spend the most time with day-to-day all believe in the supernatural. In my life, I have met folks who don't and have told me as much, but we didn't get into any long, drawn-out discussions about whether or not the supernatural exists. They have their views, I have mine, and that was the end of it. But those people are not in the majority in my life. Everyone I interact with on a daily basis believes in ghosts, or at least entertains the possibility. So it was not a stretch for me to come up with a whole group of characters who also believe. Besides, the story opens in a store where the owner and his staff not only believe in the paranormal, but enjoy stories about ghosts on a weekly basis. With one resident skeptic.

Secondly, since the whole series is about ghosts and ghost stories, it would be difficult to have a many non-believers hanging around Cassie, Michael, and their friends. Basically, my characters exist to deal with the paranormal: those who don't believe in it wouldn't hang round any of the group for very long because it would drive them nuts. Or so I figure. That is why (SPOILER ALERT FOR BOOKS 2 AND 3) Mark's skepticism has to come to the fore early on in the series.

Last but very definitely not least, is the aspect of plot and pacing. Having the nonbeliever bring up issues during the course of the action is a commonly used trope in stories that deal with the supernatural or the fantastic, and it is a trope that drives me absolutely insane. I feel like the Resident Skeptic and his or her issues, used as a way to set the pace of a story, actually slow down the action. Unless a writer is going for a Scooby-Doo ending, wherein the paranormal doesn't exist, having the Resident Skeptic along to scoff, disagree, or throw a wrench in the works, derails the plot. As a reader, if I'm reading a book about ghosts, as a believer the last thing I want to run into is the one person who "doesn't believe in all this stuff." I almost feel like the only role that character has in the story, sadly enough, is to play the part of an obstacle to the protagonist as a way for the writer to achieve pacing. That is just my (unlearned) opinion, of course, but the Resident Skeptic is not likely to show up in any of my work as a plot device very soon.

And my hero, Stephen King, doesn't do much with Resident Skeptics, either. People in his worlds don't tend to deny what's happening or demand scientific proof: they're too busy dealing with the paranormal mess that's being thrown at them. And that's the point of the ride.

So while I have read this review with respect and feel that the reviewer has raised a valid point, this is my three-point answer. I think there are actually quite a few people out there who believe in the supernatural or are at least open to it, but who may not come right out and say it. There must be. Nothing else could explain the sales of someone like Stephen King, or my good friend and fairy godmother Terri Reid, or even my own scaled-down undertakings. Readers want to be swept along with the "what if?" premise of the book and not spend a lot of time and energy on a "that's not possible because it doesn't exist" facet of the story.

It that makes me a poorer writer, I apologize. But I can't apologize for writing the kind of story that I prefer, the kinds of story that I would seek out as a reader, the kind of story wherein the characters don't even question what is happening; they just know they must deal with it. I DO believe in all of this paranormal stuff and so do the people in my life. As for my work, the occasional skeptic may come and go throughout the course of my series, but I doubt any of them will be taking up long-term residence in my writing world.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Ghosts Don't Do Statistics

I am sitting in my office, looking out at a sunny street, shadows from a sun that is high in the summer sky since it's just past noon, watching small insects zig and zag just past my window. There is a breeze blowing, and the trees are nodding with it, looking languid and almost sleepy. It's July and it's time for watermelon, fireworks, and scorching hot beaches.

And I wonder to myself, is there a haunting going on somewhere else in the world? 

There are no statistics for hauntings, although I think they would be interesting to compile if there was only a way to do it. Can you imagine? According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2014, worldwide 361,481 babies were born per day, working out to 251 per minute on the planet. According to the New York Daily News, in 2013, Ford sold almost 2.5 million vehicles. That works out to roughly 6,849 vehicles sold per day, or 4.8 per minute. (I love statistics like this! They're so much fun to try to imagine!) 

However, there are no fun statistics about hauntings per day, anywhere in the world, at least, not on record that I could find. I know. I Googled it. I did find lists of purportedly haunted places around the globe, some of which are new to me (which is as much fun as statistics! Wow! A new place to read about!). But no one has ever tried to count how many times someone ran into an apparition at, say, Gettysburg. Or London Tower. Or Waverly Hills Sanitorium. And what a pity.

I have no idea how anyone could keep track of this, although I know that a lot of historic sites conduct ghost tours and are used to people talking about apparitions and disturbances. I have actually been in places where they have log books so that visitors can record their own paranormal experiences. But as far as I know, no one has ever decided to organize the data in any particular way. I wish they would.

I would love to see an article or book that reels off stats like "There are 8.5 ghostly visitations per day at Little Big Horn," or "The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum clocks in at the most haunted site in the U.S.: 8 to 10 sightings per minute!" Would that make you more likely to run in for a visit, or run in the other direction? I must admit that which way I turned would depend on what time of day or night it was, and who was with me. I love ghost stories, but I'm a paranormal coward underneath it all. Really.

Still, there are such things as hauntings on a schedule. A friend told me about an apartment in Chicago where the bedroom door would shut itself every night at ten o'clock. He could have set his watch to it. And the time he experimented by having the door already closed at that particular hour, the door opened itself, and then shut. That's a well-regulated haunting.

The house I grew up with had it's own witching or dark hours, as it were. They started at ten-thirty every night and ended at one in the morning. I know because I clocked the disturbances while I was up studying, trying desperately to ignore what was going on and failing pretty miserably. It's not easy to study for tests or write papers when you realize you're not alone and that something or someone unseen is very busy around you while you're trying to work. Chairs shifting, floorboards creaking, and just for fun, the occasional loud BANG! that makes it sound like someone shoved a dresser over onto its side. But like that apartment my friend had, I could have set my watch to the activity in my house, also.

But schedules are not stats and I'd so love to know if there is any site anywhere that compiles this kind of information. So if anyone out there knows of paranormal statistics along this line, I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment, or hit my email off of my website. I'd swap you a story for your information!

Friday, July 1, 2016

And Now a Word From My Sponsor: Me

 I know that Friday is not my usual blog day, and don't worry. There should be my regular post come Monday morning. BUT I had to announce that I have a new story out and it is now available at Kindle World!!!!

A short time ago, my friend and fairy godmother, Terri Reid, told me that Amazon was giving her Mary O' Reilly series its own World, and then asked if I would like to help launch it by contributing a Mary O' Reilly fan-fic. Would I like to contribute? DUH.

Fan-fic, as those of us who are into it know, consists of stories written and posted by rabid fans who can't wait for the author's next work. Or who had a story they wanted to tell using someone's else's characters because the story is so suited to them. Fan-fic readers are a community of people who are, well, obsessed with a particular author's universe. (World? Sometimes its a whole universe, honest.) And I have long dabbled in the art of writing works that concern someone else's creation. Because when I like something, I am an uber-fan-girl. I'm sure I'm not the only out there.

So a couple of months and some twenty-eight thousand words after Terri first contacted me, my story has popped into life in the Kindle World collection, along those of five other seed authors whose work is also available. 

My story is called A Scattering of Bones and concerns Mary O' Reilly, Bradley Alden, two ghosts who are afraid to talk to the police, and a jumble of bones in an unmarked grave. 

You can find this story either by going to the Kindle Worlds store (look under "New and Popular") or by looking under my name on Amazon. It's short, as all of them are, so knock yourself out! Terri just released Frayed Edges - maybe these will help tide you over until the next genuine Mary O' Reilly story becomes available!

And please, if you read my story (any story of mine) and like what you find, please, please, please leave a review at Amazon. I'd be indebted.

Monday, June 27, 2016

(Almost) Total Recall

 What is a Card Catalog? (with pictures)

Are you, like me, haunted by memories? And can you also say, like I do, that I hope that is true for the rest of my life?

I sometimes think I am on a fast track to Alzheimer's, and I don't mean that to be offensive in any way. I've even gone to see a neurologist who asked me the test questions and administered the little games meant to see if my memory is slipping up in any way. He thought I was fine. (But he also wanted to see me in a year. What did that mean???) I peruse articles about dementia, Alzheimer's, senility, and Lewy Body, studying early symptoms and comparing them to my own experiences.

One of the things that always jumps to the fore is the idea that a lot of patients with the above-mentioned conditions are great with memories of childhood and the past; better, in fact, at recalling grade school buddies than what they might have had for lunch yesterday. That is becoming truer for me than it was before. I like to think that I am running out of memory storage and that's why I have all the old stuff and don't retain all of the new stuff, but I'm not sure that's quite it.

Doctors say that people with Alzheimer's will forget basic things like what a watch is for, or how to work with a checkbook. Normal people, they say, are more likely to forget a name, or a face, or some other item that frequently will swim up to their conscious memory minutes or even hours later. Normal people have that tip-of-the-tongue thing going, like I do. Doctors also say that stress, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise can play havoc with one's ability to remember, as do some non-neurological health issues, and some medications. And all of that is reassuring.

But I don't want to lose my memory. Sometimes people tell me that I have a strange one. I'll give them that, I guess. I used to think that everyone remembered almost everything like I did, but lots of people I talk to can barely remember high school, let alone what they liked to wear when they were five years old (I favored corduroy overalls, myself). So maybe the way my memory functions is slightly different than the memories of other people. 

But I have since met other writers whose minds work rather like mine: I can recall every teacher I had in grade school and high school, entire conversations from thirty-five years ago, a song of rebellion dating back to the Spanish-American War that my sixth grade teacher played during music class; what my favorite umbrella looked like when I was in high school, the songs that were playing on the radio during my freshman (and Sophomore and junior and senior) year/s of college when I drove to class in the morning, and lots of other probably useless and ridiculously detailed bits of information. I think writers -some of us- need to have that so that we don't struggle so much with writing background and day-to-day scenes when we work.

Back in the day when I was reading John D. MacDonald and his amazing Travis McGee books, I remember him writing that McGee's friend Meyer had a memory like a house filled with rooms containing different kinds of information. When McGee wanted to know something and he asked Meyer about it, his friend would disappear into one of those rooms and then come back out with the answer.

Fast forward to the movie Dreamcatcher, based on the novel by Stephen King. The character Jonesy had a "memory warehouse."  I will never forget the sight of Damian Lewis trundling his wheelbarrow through that warehouse and passing collections of things like "song lyrics." 

Unlike the Medieval scholars, I don't have a memory palace. I don't even a warehouse like Jonesy. I've always thought of my own memories as being in something like an old-fashioned card catalog at the library. I have a thing about alphabetical order (ask anyone who knows my CD collection) so I guess that's not surprising. Lately I've been worried about that card catalog, though. I really don't want to lose track of my memories.

Especially the really evocative things like certain songs, or certain smells, that can bring me back into an entire time/place/setting/event in a way that is so real that I used to think I could time travel if I tried hard enough. There are times when an old conversation with someone from years ago will play like a movie through my head and I would swear that if I reached my hand out just the right way, I could touch that person again. I am haunted, in that respect, and that is something I never want to lose. 

Judy Blume once wrote that she could remember what she wore to school her first day of Kindergarten. Maybe those of us writers who are fascinated by memories tend to find ways to write about them: MacDonald and McGee's friend Meyer; King and the memory warehouse; more recently, J.K. Rowling and the pensieve. I love that concept. There are times I could use a pensieve.

But to get back to memory. I played with it in Saving Jake. Part of the premise of that book, the particular "what if" question (a "what if" question or two can be found at the base of everything I write) was, "What if someone was so good at retrieving memories that he could actually walk around in someone else's?" And along came Philip Corts.

Memory is an amazing thing. It's also double-edged in that if you are the kind of person to retain memories, you retain ALL of them, not just the fun or happy ones. And those vivid memories of past hurts, betrayals, disappointments, rejections, can still wound. Some might call it dwelling on the past, but it really isn't about dwelling on anything. I don't have to go very far into myself to pull up past injuries. And that was summed up by yet another writer, William Faulkner, when he wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Are you like that, too? It's kind of a strange way to live. But I like it.