Thursday, February 22, 2018

Flipping the Switch

 Image result for bachelors grove cemetery

Bachelors Grove Cemetery is located in Midlothian, Illinois, a far southwest suburb of Chicago. It has a reputation of being one of the most haunted sites in the Chicagoland area, and there are numerous stories about it, including a really strange one about a phantom house that is sometimes glimpsed from among the trees.

I had the chance to visit the cemetery when I was taking a class on the paranormal at the local community college. Unfortunately for me, the class was taught by a skeptic, with a capital S, and so his entire class framework was that no topic he covered in class, be it ghosts, UFOs, or monsters,was actually real, and that there were always scientific ways to debunk anything that even smelled of a haunting or other paranormal activity. Bummer for me! Nevertheless, we were invited as a class on a weekend field trip to visit Bachelor Grove Cemetery. And since I had never been, I made the drive out on a gorgeous, sunny Sunday morning.

As far as historical sites go, this cemetery did not disappoint. The tombstones were old, some were beginning to lean, some were nearly smothered in vegetation, and some were missing altogether. Names and dates engraved on the stones weren't always legible. The whole area felt old and isolated, despite the fact that we were just a short walk away from an intersection of fairly busy streets. The trees surrounding the plots were tall and at full foliage, and they cut off any sense of the urban reality all around us.

The instructor gave us a short tour, including the gravestone where the famous picture at the top of this post  was taken. He reminded us that the picture is a hoax since the spectral figure's shadow can be seen (can it?), and then let us wander freely where we wanted to go. I did that, and found that the cemetery is quite benevolent in the daytime. The sun was high and bright, and all the shrubs and flowering plants that were growing wild seemed free and undisturbed, like one might find on any other patch of uncultivated land in a prairie state.

But then I thought about how the place would look in darkest night, and all sense of peace and harmony vanished, like flipping a switch. Being out there in the dark with nothing more than a flashlight or a lantern would not be something I'd sign up for with enthusiasm. Ghost story reader? That's me. Active investigator? I don't think so.

And then I thought, why is it that some places become disturbed as if by a flip of a switch? The house where I grew up was exactly like that. My sister and I could be playing in the basement for hours, and then all of a sudden, something in the air would change. We would look at each other and then beat a hasty retreat for the first floor. And the basement wasn't the only room that had that kind of split personality. The sun room had it, as did the attic, and even the living room on occasion. What was wandering our house that would leave us in peace for an allotted period of time, then make its presence known with such cold malevolence that we knew there suddenly wasn't enough room for all of us in that space? What could obliterate so much of the cheer and the harmony in a given area that we would feel driven to leave?

Those experiences have led me to examine new places that I visit with a particular line of questions. What would this place look like -feel like- in the dark? What would it be like to stand here at night, with no lights on? Sometimes the answer is benevolent and peaceful and I know there would be no change regardless of sunset. But other places? Others respond to me with a cold touch, even in broad daylight, and let me know that when the dark comes, that switch does indeed get flipped. And that I would not like to be there.

And I always wonder, when that happens...why is that? And also, would I really want to know?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Borrowing from Reality

Shortly after Saving Jake was released, I started getting questions from readers -some of whom I knew, some I didn't- about whether or not I had the same ability as Philip Corts, my main character. Philip Corts has the extraordinary ability to obtain information about someone by touching or holding an object that belonged to the person in question. The name for that ability is psychometry. It's an ability that has fascinated me for a long time and though I don't know anyone who can do it, I just tried to put myself into the head of someone who could. I must have done a reasonably good job because so many people asked me if I could do the same things that my character did. I can't and am actually glad I can't. I think getting images and pictures off something I touched would drive me a little crazy. 

No the reality that shows up in Saving Jake is not psychometry but is all about shipwrecks and Door County, as pointed out in a previous blog post.

But some of the fears and experiences and scenes in the Brigdeton Park Cemetery books are indeed borrowed from reality. For example, in the first book, Haunted, there is a scene where Cassie pulls open her bedroom door only to be confronted by the ghost of a dead young man who then comes into her bedroom as she backs away from him. Now that scene is quite a bit more drastic than my everyday life, but for years after moving into our current house, I would hesitate every time I opened the bathroom door upon finishing my morning or night routine. I can't tell you why, except that I always had the strongest feeling that there was someone waiting for me right outside that door. Someone dead.

If there was, I never saw him or her. And I can't tell you why I felt that, but I could never shake the feeling. Even when ghosts were the furthest thing from my mind, as soon as I touched that knob and turned it to open the door, that dread would overtake me. Always.

And then there is a scene in book three, Drawing Vengeance, where Cassie dreams she meets up with the ghost from an earlier book in an empty banquet hall. The ghost is sitting at a table under the only light in an otherwise darkened room, waiting for her. This is an adaptation from a dream I once had. Some years ago, I was obsessed (and I mean obsessed) with a particular historical figure, and I must have read about twenty biographies about the man, all in a row. I don't know why, and I don't know where that initial fascination sprang from, but I binge-read everything I could find on him until I got to the point where I wasn't learning anything new from each successive book. And about that time, I dreamed about him. I walked into a darkened room with a stage at one end, where he stood under the only light that was turned on in the entire venue. I don't know where we were or why we were there, I just knew I wanted to walk up to him so I could finally meet him. He was looking down and I'll never forget how that light made his fair hair almost dazzling. He was dressed entirely in black, an amazing contrast to his hair, and he raised his head when I reached him. He looked me straight in the eye and said, simply, "Don't get too close." 

I came up out of that dream like I was breaking the surface of a dark pond, seeking light and gasping for breath. I didn't read anything more about him for close to twenty years, after being warned off like that. I still have no idea what that dream meant, and it still has the same effect on me if I think about it too much. Cassie's experience in that dark room might have been slightly more benevolent than mine!

Lastly, the use of memento mori pictures in book five, Touching Shadow, Stealing Light, was something I needed to get out of my system. I found a site that featured nothing but pictures that included at least one dead person in the shot, or maybe just that one dead person in a portrait, and I actually bookmarked this thing on my computer. After Jim had such a visceral reaction to looking at them ("That's enough of that," he said after the first five) I started getting weirded out by the pictures myself. In fact, my whole office started feeling like I had a crowd of dead people waiting for me every time I came back to my computer. I deleted the site and that was the end of that. But I put the concept of photos of the dead into book five. As well as a crowd of dead people.

There are times I wish I could ask writers I admire, and whose works I love, what was behind certain images or scenes or other attributes in their books. Were they writing about fears that they may have always had? Was that character someone he or she knew in real life, or maybe a composite of several people? Was that amazingly frightening or amazingly poignant scene based on something that really happeend?

Tell you what: if you read me and you EVER have a question about where someone or something in my book came from, write to me and I'll tell you. I can't get many of those answers from most writers that I read, but I would certainly give my answers to anyone who might ask me!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

They See Dead People

One of the coolest things I get to do with my job is interview interesting people, and what I learn shows up in my books. I'm careful to research certain details when I write because I know that nothing is as annoying as finding a mistake in a novel when it relates to a subject I know something about. (I've never quite forgiven a particular author for her use of the misnomer "judo chop.") Details, right or wrong, can strengthen or derail an author's credibility. So I find people to talk to.

Some of the people I talk to see the dead. I ask them lots of questions because what Michael Penfield is able to see, or what Cassie Valentine is able to glean from the departed, is crucial to my stories. Since I like tales that have to do with the paranormal, this is one of the more enjoyable aspects of my work. On the other hand, it can be a little unsettling.

One gentleman I know was driving to his lady friend's house one night and as he was pulling into her driveway in back, he noticed that she was standing on her back porch, clad in a long, white nightgown. I'm sure I hardly need to continue this story but here it is for your verification. He got out of the car and she was no longer on the porch so he went around to the front door, the path he usually took when he arrived. She let him in and he looked at her. "What happened to the white nightgown?" he asked.

"What white nightgown?" She was bewildered.

"The one you were wearing when you were standing out on the back porch a minute ago."

She looked at him like he had sprouted another pair of ears. "It's winter. Why would I be standing on my back porch in a white nightgown?" Because, of course, she hadn't been.

I have to admit that I am glad I don't have the ability to see random ghosts. I don't know that I would handle it as gracefully as my friends. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't, given what happened over the summer! But they seem to take it very much in stride.

Another gentleman I know joined me for a book signing in my home town, since he is also a writer. After our three-hour stint of meeting people and selling our wares, I walked with him to the parking lot behind the store and asked him about seeing dead people. He told me it was something he has always been able to do. He didn't always like it, but there it is. He explained how he sees entities in people's houses, or in random buildings. He even explained that ghosts don't always appear the way one might expect. "There's a house down the street from me that's haunted by a young girl, maybe seven or eight years of age. But I know that she was in her nineties when she died. She just likes to project that image of herself." I had never heard of such a thing before that conversation, but have since run into that aspect of a haunting at various locations; he was just the first person to tell me that such a thing might happen.

We chatted a little longer and then decided we should part ways, since he had about a two-hour drive to get home from the bookstore. But he stopped for one last moment and said to me, just before he left, "You know, there's a dead guy watching us from a window in that building across the street." Then he grinned at me and went to his car.

I looked at the building in question and I didn't see a thing, but I would never look at it the same way again.

But...round about that time, Michael Penfield gained his ability to see the dead.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Past Owners

There is a common trope in ghost stories that adults who saw specters when they were children no longer have the ability to do so as they grow older. Children seem to lose their imaginary friends. A woman I knew who had regular visits from her deceased grandfather no longer saw him after a certain birthday. (By the way, she didn't know it was her dead grandfather until she saw a picture of him in an old family album and learned who he was; he had died years before she was born.)

Some people say children don't yet know that they're not supposed to see the dead. Then as they get older and they learn that "there's no such thing as ghosts," or that what they saw "must have just been their imagination," they lose the ability to see beyond the physical. I'm not sure what the reason is, although it seems that some people never lose that ability. Thus we have mediums, psychics, and those that are considered to be crazy. 

I believe in ghosts and I believe in mediums and psychics, so I must fall into the last category. Crazy. But I kinda like it here. 

At any event, my oldest grandson, like his mother, sees ghosts. I guess I shouldn't be surprised; it does seem to run in this family. He used to talk about who and what he saw more often; I can't decide if these conversations are becoming less frequent because he is beginning to realize that others don't see the same thing he does, or if it's because he's actually outgrowing the ability to do so, the way so many people do. But he did give me one last ghost story. a year or two ago.

Jim and I decided to redo our kitchen. Our house was built in 1961 and the kitchen was original to first construction. It was tired and worn and totally bedraggled in some areas, so after my sister and her husband renovated their kitchen, we decided to follow suit. The process took several weeks (that's a LOT of frozen dinners and take-out, by the way) but it was so worth it. Our beautiful new cabinets gleamed and the floor no longer looked like 1960's linoleum with many decades' worth of ground-in stains and marks.

Shortly after it was finished, I was standing in that kitchen when my grandson came to me and said, "Who lived here before we did?"

I was surprised by the question. "An older couple," I said. "They retired and decided to move back to the East coast because that's where they were from originally and they wanted to be close to their families."
He thought about that, and then he said, "They're dead."

That made me just a little uneasy. "Well, I guess they could be," I answered. "They were a bit older when we bought this house from them."

He nodded. "They're dead," he said again. And then he turned and started heading back to his bedroom.

"Did you see them?" I called after him.

But he didn't answer.

For me, he didn't have to. Yes, I'm pretty sure he did see them. Probably even spoke with them since he knew who they were. After all, they had lived in this house since it was built and were very proud of it as it was. I'm sure they wanted to find out what was going on, and who better to speak with than the child who could have that conversation with them? I hope they liked what they saw when the renovation was completed. 

I think they probably did, because my grandson never mentioned them again.