Thursday, May 31, 2018

I first "met" Richard Peck when I got a part-time job at the library as a circulation clerk. This meant that I checked out patrons' books, and also that I got to shelve the cartload of returned items, everything from vinyl records and puppets to puzzles and actual books. It's a great library.

And I had a great supervisor who never said anything even though I was the slowest re-shelver in the place. Mostly because I kept sampling the wares, and then finding additional interesting items on the shelves as I returned the books. While wandering the stacks like that, I ran into the works of a Young Adult writer named Richard Peck. I had never heard of him until I found him in that library, and once I did, I was hooked. How could I not be when he had titles like Ghosts I Have Been, The Ghost Belonged to Me, and Voices After Midnight? I read everything by him that the library had to offer.

Fast forward many years, and I had gotten a book published and joined The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. One year, the Society offered a two-day workshop down in Champaign-Urbana that included critiquing by peer group, and then a chance to read to and be advised by none other than Richard Peck. There was no way I was going to miss out on that so I registered and got myself downstate to finally meet the man.

And he was wonderful: funny, charming, and with a head full of amazing wisdom. I managed to make it through the critique group without too much damage (me, who never joins writers' groups) but I was basically quaking in my shoes at the idea of reading my work in front of the entire gathering as well as Mr. Peck. Talk about nervous. Read my stuff? In front of my hero? But I had signed up, so there was no getting around it.

I sat in the back of the room so that I wouldn't be the first to read. I was kind of hoping to either be the last, or that an earthquake would strike at an opportune moment and the floor would swallow me whole before I needed to open my mouth in front of him. But finally, after listening to my colleagues read their excerpts and being totally blow away by the collective talent in that room, it was my turn.

I started reading and although I was paying enough attention to the sheets of paper I held in my shaking hands, I was aware that Mr. Peck had gotten up from the desk at the front of the room and had walked around to sit down directly across from me. Trying not to freak out, I finished what I was reading, looked up at him, and he smiled. And then he said, "Well. You're very good, aren't you?" And that was as jarring to me as any earthquake could have been. To this day, I replay that comment in my head, in his voice, with that smile on his face. One of the best moments of my entire life, let alone my writing life.

We didn't have a chance to speak again; I needed to leave the workshop a little early, and he was busy with everyone who also wanted to speak to him. But we did exchange letters, and I have his in my treasured author-letters file. Physical proof that I had actually connected with my hero.

He shared two snippets of his wisdom with us at that workshop. Before we broke into our small critique groups, he said "Remember: writing is not done by committee." (Perhaps he didn't do writers' groups either--I never thought to ask him.) And then before we read our work aloud to him and to everyone else, he said "If you want to write for children, always remember. Childhood is a jungle, not a garden." This was a man who, no matter how many years he collected, remained very much connected to the child in his heart.

Later in his career, he switched from YA Supernatural to Middle Grade, and was awarded The Newberry for his book A Year Down Yonder. Previously, he had already received the Edgar, the Margaret Edwards Award, and the National Humanities Medal.

Richard Peck hailed from my home state of Illinois and became one of the biggest lights in young people's fiction. I'm so very grateful that I had a chance to meet him.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Seeing Seaweed Charlie

When I was finishing up grade school, one of my older brothers was a student at University of Illinois-Chicago (known back then as "Chicago Circle"). There were four of us siblings, and as far as I know, all of us had a draw to the unearthly even when we were growing up, though my brothers were less likely to discuss that sort of thing.

However, my brother Edd made an exception when he told me about the night he saw Seaweed Charlie. Edd was driving home late one night after a party, as college students frequently do, coming south from Evanston into Chicago via Sheridan Road. When you follow that particular route, Lake Michigan will be on your left, and right where Evanston and Chicago meet, Calvary Cemetery will be on your right. He was alone in his car, making his way back to home and bed, when he saw something ahead of him on the road. In the dark, with only intermittent streetlights, he could just discern a human figure shuffling slowly from left to right. In other words, from the lake toward the cemetery.

He slowed down as he drew closer since the figure appeared to be in no hurry to avoid getting hit by any oncoming traffic. In fact, the figure's gait was slow and shuffling, although deliberate, as it made its way across the street. Now, Calvary Cemetery dates back to the 1800's around the time of the Civil War. It is a fairly large piece of land, enclosed by a tall wrought iron fence, and Edd couldn't figure out where this slow-moving pedestrian was headed. Until he saw it reach the cemetery fence and then,,,disappear. Even as he looked around to see if perhaps this person had taken a left or right to continue along the roadway, he realized there was no one in sight.

There was no other traffic on the road, so he actually pulled the car over at the spot where he had seen this mystery man cross in front of him and disappear at the cemetery, and got out to look around. He did find wet tracks leading from the lake to the fence, and he also found bits of weed and debris, the sort of thing you might find if you went digging around in the lake.

Puzzled, not sure what he had seen, he got back into his car and drove home. He told me about it some time later and I could still hear the bewilderment in his voice. He had come to the conclusion that he must have seen a ghost, because he couldn't explain how a living person could have disappeared through wrought iron, or vanished into thin air.

Being the avid ghost story collector that I was, I filed the tale away and was thus surprised when I ran into it as an adult.

The late (great) Richard Crowe, Chicago ghost-tour pioneer and avid ghost story collector himself, included Seaweed Charlie in his book Chicago's Street Guide to the Supernatural. No one knows who exactly it is that clambers out of Lake Michigan and vanishes into Calvary Cemetery, but there are suggestions that he might be a naval aviator whose plane crashed in Lake Michigan during a training exercise mid-twentieth century. The plane was recovered but the aviator never was. (You can Google Seaweed Charlie - AKA "The Aviator" - and find all manner of stories about him, from possible background details to witness accounts.)

Of course, I didn't find out about all of this until years after I first heard Edd's story. But back in those days, as a kid, whenever I was in the car and was being driven along that route at night, I would close my eyes until we were well past Calvary Cemetery for fear of having my own glimpse of Seaweed Charlie. I've heard that sightings of him have calmed down, recently. Apparently he was seen most often during the 1950's and -60's. But he's still included in most ghost story books about Chicago. 

Now that I've moved out of the city, I don't pass that way at all. But I sometimes wonder: if I did, would I have a chance to see him for myself? 

Unlike my brother, though, I don't believe I would get out of the car and go looking for that wet, seaweed-covered track from the edge of the lake to the cemetery fence. No, I think seeing him would be quite enough for me.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Going Back. Or Not.

I mentioned in last week's post that I really enjoyed the TV show "Celebrity Ghost Stories." I watched it faithfully until the network decided to cancel it (boo, hiss.) But during that time, I became hooked on its sister show, "The Haunting of..." starring Kim Russo.

Kim Russo describes herself as a psychic medium and I was able to see her in person (with Jim in tow, of course) at one of her presentations. She's funny and warm and very New York. I've learned a great deal by watching her. "The Haunting of..." featured Kim meeting up with one of the celebrities from "Celebrity Ghost Stories" at the place where said celebrity experienced her or his paranormal experience. She would walk through the site with the famous personality at her side, and discuss what that person experienced. And then she would talk about why it probably happened. Some of the stories were outright heartbreaking. When she worked with the late (great) Rowdy Roddy Piper, for instance, she determined that the haunting was being caused by a friend who had passed years before and was reaching out to let Mr. Piper know that he was watching out for him and for his family. This friend was someone who had helped the famous wrestler through some of the worst times of his life, and had passed away at a young age in a car accident.

There was also the rock star whose daughter came back to comfort him when his grief threatened to derail his entire life. She came to him on several occasions and stayed for a little while each time, to help him understand that she was still close to him.

Some of the entities, however, were less than benevolent, and Ms. Russo did help take care of the problem for several of her well-known clients.

The point of the show was to go back and confront personal fear from a specific incident, and to resolve it so that the person could move on. The part of that I find the most interesting is the idea of going back.

Would I? I think about the house I grew up in. I have tons of wonderful memories from that house since I lived in it from the age of three, got married in it, and moved out of it as a young wife and mother. On the other hand, while I was in college, I had recurring nightmares (I mean the kind that give you cold sweats) that I would wake up in an empty house to find a note from my parents explaining that they had retired to Spain and that the house was now mine. NOOOOOO! I seriously used to freak out at the idea: growing up there with my large, extended family was one thing. Living the rest of my life there? No, thank you.

So would I go back? If I had the opportunity to take Kim Russo into that house with me and say "This is where I felt that bony hand resting on the headboard of my bed one night" or "This is where we heard the baby crying" or "This is where the son of our dinner guests saw the old lady standing" or even "This is where my clairaudient friend heard those nightly footsteps originate before they climbed the stairs to the second floor and stopped outside my bedroom" (for the full story, scroll back and see blog post from April 26, 2018). Would I have the courage to hear the answers to my questions? Like why is there a bricked-up staircase and room in the coach house apartment in the garage? Or what is the malevolent-feeling presence that could drive everyone from a given room at random times? Or why did there seem to be a nightly haunting that started at about 10:30 every night and ended at around 1 a.m? Or who was the ghostly figure that both my husband and our cat saw at the bottom of the stairs one night?

Part of me would LOVE to have her walk through that house and explain everything. And part of me says, I'd really rather not know.

Weird things happened in my childhood home: objects disappearing and then coming back weeks later; disembodied voices; lights and radios going on by themselves; unexplained and loud noises in the middle of the night. There was a quality of strangeness to that house, and I always found it interesting when my childhood friend, who became a real estate agent, would call me up and say, "Hey, your house is back on the market again." That happened frequently after my mother sold the place and moved away.

If you've had a paranormal experience and had a chance to go back with a true psychic medium to find out what was really going on, would you do it?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Serial Haunters

A few years ago, I dragged Jim out to see a presentation being given by Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves of Ghost Hunters. Jim's a good sport about it and went along willingly. Little did he know this was to be the first of many such lectures, but more about those at a later date, perhaps.

At any event, Mr. Hawes and Mr. Gonsalves turned out to be very funny and entertaining, even while they were talking about investigating haunted houses and dark entities and frightening personal experiences. They showed film clips - including a spoof on Ghost Hunters as done by South Park - of various unexplained occurrences in their quest to document paranormal activities. They played recordings of EVP's (electronic voice phenomena), some of which were pretty chilling. And they spent a nice amount of time taking questions from the audience. In other words, it was a well-rounded, informative, and entertaining evening.

But there was one thing that Mr. Hawes talked about that stuck in my mind and still pops up from time to time. He said that during his travels all over the country to investigate the other-worldly and help people deal with frightening and possibly even malevolent forces, he ran across something that seemed to affect children from all parts of the U.S. It didn't matter what state or city these children came from, and it wasn't something that he started out looking for. But he said that a number of children that he interviewed, usually regarding the particular problem in their houses, all mentioned a particular ghost. The reason it struck him was that the description of this ghost was always the same. The children described it as male and then they would talk about the clothing he wore. And in instance after instance, in city after city, the descriptions were identical across the board.

And then Mr. Hawes said that at some point, he wanted to look into this particular phenomenon, because what he was hearing -and documenting- seemed to be a particular entity that was literally criss-crossing the country and appearing to different children.

We all pretty much know what a serial killer is. So could there be such a thing as a serial haunter? An entity that chooses its intended "hauntee" (always a child) and then pops in to freak them out? I don't remember Mr. Hawes suggesting that this apparition did more than show up, but I don't think the children felt it to be a comfortable presence. That said, could this thing be targeting a specific type of child? Certainly, one who is sensitive enough to see it, but maybe something else? Again, Mr. Hawes didn't specify. He did say he wanted to keep some details to himself because he was working on this as a long-term project. So maybe there were some common denominators that he never mentioned.
The more I think about this, the more disturbing it gets.

So let's get to something a little closer to home. Some years ago, I was watching an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories. Anyone remember that one? I loved that show! Anyway, the celebrity story being presented that night was told by Carnie Wilson, of Wilson-Phillips fame. Apparently, when Carnie moved into her first apartment, she did not want to sleep alone on her first night in a new place, so she invited her sister, Wendy, to join her. During the middle of the night, Carnie woke up to see a tall, thin man standing in her doorway. She described him as having a long coat, almost like a frock coat, and a tall hat, and he was looking at her. So she did what most of us would do: she pulled the covers over her head. After waiting for a few minutes, she peeped out from under the covers, and there he was, standing beside the bed and bending over to look at her. (I would have had a heart attack on the spot, but Carnie Wilson was young and in good health when this happened.)

She told Wendy about it the next day, telling her sister that she had had a very strange dream and then describing this nocturnal visitor in detail. And Wendy said, "Oh, yeah, he's been following me around for a while." To which Carnie understandably replied, "And you didn't think to TELL me about that???" 

The story is pretty creepy. Who wants to wake up in the middle of the night and see an apparition, first in the doorway, and then bending over your bed to look at you? (I think she said she pulled the covers right back over her head and somehow eventually fell asleep again. I applaud her for being able to do that!)

Here's where it gets creepier. My nephew's wife woke up one night to see a tall, thin man in a long coat and a tall hat, standing in the doorway of their bedroom and did exactly what Carnie Wilson did: she pulled the covers over her head. And when she peeked out, there he was, bending over the bed, looking down at her. After admitting she let out a little shriek, she pulled the covers back over herself, and moved closer to her sleeping husband, eventually falling asleep again. (I applaud her as well.)

Now, I had heard my niece-in-law's story at least a year, or year and a half, before I ever saw Carnie Wilson's Celebrity Ghost Story. Our family experience happened in Illinois. Carnie Wilson's happened in California. 

Again, an entity who criss-crosses the country and pops in on young women? Could there be such a thing as a serial haunter?

Oh, the story ideas that gives me...

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Tales From the (Ghost) Front

I know I always tell people that when I write, I seem to wake up and/or attract other-worldly presences. They walk up and down the hall, knock on the walls, make sounds like they are shifting furniture around (even though nothing is ever out of place), and occasionally make such a ruckus that it sounds like something has fallen off a shelf and crashed to the floor. While I can't exactly ignore this stuff -more like I just don't look- I have gotten to the point where I don't give it any attention other than acknowledging that I just heard a noise, and now it's time to go back to writing.

Until the past few weeks.

I mentioned somewhere, I'm not sure if it was here or on my Facebook posts, that the other week, both my daughter and I heard the sounds of a little kid running up and down the hall. Without there being a little kid actually doing so. Well, that was maybe the kick-off moment. Maybe we shouldn't have given him any attention? Then again, maybe this isn't him.

Lately, the noises in my house are getting louder, more frequent, and uncomfortably closer. Most of the time, my writing visitors are down the hall. Or maybe around the corner. Just someplace at a distance where I would probably need to get up and take a loo, if I wanted to ascertain whether a book or a vase has actually fallen off a shelf. Not so much, these days. Tuesday and yesterday while I was writing, I was treated to banging and knocking and other loud, intrusive noises that were at most about six feet away from where I sit. All I would have had to do was turn my head to see what was happening. If there was anything to see.

Luckily, my name is not Michael Penfield, nor do I have his ability to see the dead at the drop of a hat. Or anything else that might be falling to the ground. I have looked, once or twice, to see who's making a racket so close to my chair (always to my left and maybe just a little bit behind me, so that I really would need to turn my head to check things out) and of course, I don't see anything. But sometimes I feel it.

I've probably mentioned before that my younger daughter once told a psychic about our house and asked what was going on in it. At that time, our dog would sometimes bark at the front door when no one was there. (Great stuff when Jim was out of town.) Our doorbell would ring, but it was always kind of a strange ring: a little weak, as if whoever or whatever was pushing the button couldn't quite push it hard enough to achieve the full effect. Lights would sometimes be on when they shouldn't have been. Things like that. The psychic told our daughter that our house wasn't haunted, exactly, but it was sort of a way-station. A place where spirits passed through. Why that would be, I don't know, but my older daughter confirmed that by remarking that there were always strange (and dead) people walking down our main hall. 

I believe it. Our main hall attracts some weird feelings at either, and sometimes both, end/s, whether at the laundry/utility room at one end, or at the opposite side of the house where the bedrooms are. There are times that I hate walking down my hall because it doesn't feel quite right.

But I also agree that we don't seem to have a permanent resident from the other world, so I guess that's a plus. Maybe. It's nice not to worry about always having something here. On the other hand, we never know what will turn up if someone decides to pass through. If there are portals in certain places, I'd guess that maybe our house is a connection between them. 

So as I finish this blog piece and get ready to post and announce it, I am also bracing for afterward, when I open my document and resume work on book 6. Because we all know what's going to happen when I do.