Thursday, August 30, 2018

When You Weren't Expecting That Ghost

The files of true ghost stories are filled with tales of people who went to a specific place they didn't realize was haunted, and got a big surprise. Or at least a chill and some uneasy feelings.

That's happened to me twice. It's not likely to happen now because I've read and seen so much more about what sites are disturbed or which ones house a spirit or several. But back before I started doing what I do -writing about ghosts and researching them while I'm at it- I wound up at a couple of places that I found out later had "issues."

The first was Fort Riley in Kansas. Now if someone says to me, "I hear Fort Riley has ghosts," I could tell them a little bit about what's going on there. But when we toured the Fort some twenty-eight years ago, I had no idea. Jim and I had taken the kids to visit his sister and her family in Kansas, and one of the outings she suggested was a visit to the Fort. We were up for that; we're both history buffs and Fort Riley has a long and fascinating history.

The Fort is an enormous military installation and we confined ourselves to the historical areas close to the visitors' center. First opened in 1853, Fort Riley is a place of old and historical structures juxtaposed with today's modern military culture. There's a lot to see and I know we didn't see all of it, but we spent part of the day exploring.

At one point, I needed to use the facilities, which were in the visitors' center. I went into the women's room and noted that although the overhead fluorescent lights were all on, the big room seemed dim, nonetheless. It was also cold and uneasy feeling, and I hurried through my routine, washing my hands and drying them as quickly as possible. I felt as if someone was watching me the entire time, and not necessarily in a friendly or welcoming way.

I found out some time later that that visitors' center was in the same building that had been used as a morgue back in the day. Hmmm. Wonder if that had something to do with it. (General George Armstrong Custer was stationed there after the Civil War and reportedly his base house, now a museum, is haunted, but that wasn't where I had my experience.)

Another time, Jim and I went to a company dinner at a restaurant called The Hideaway. The Hideaway's claim to fame was that it had once belonged to Al Capone and due to its place on the Fox River, it was used not only as a speakeasy, but as a destination for bootleggers to unload and store their illegal wares. At the time we went, there was a bar and restaurant on the first floor, rooms for private events on the second, and the third was for offices and staff.

We arrived in the parking lot and Jim - not even me, but my husband, the engineer- took one look at the building and said, "I don't want to go in there." I was surprised and asked him why. "It looks...dark," was all he said. But we were expected at dinner, so in we went.

The first floor was fine: it was loud, rowdy, and cheerful, filled with happy patrons and the wonderful fragrances of a busy steakhouse. That would have been a great place to eat. But we were in one of the private rooms on the second floor. The room itself was both well-decorated and spacious, with white linen table cloths and flowers at the center of every table. But the lighting was dim, almost dark, and there was an oppressive feeling as well.

But we sat down and had a great time, chatting and laughing with his co-workers and their spouses. And then, as always, I had to use the facilities. I wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere on the second floor alone, except maybe the stairs going down. But I saw another lady get up and head in the direction of the restroom, so I told Jim I would go while someone else was there. 

She was already finishing up when I walked in -dang it!- but we smiled at each other as she washed her hands and I headed for a stall. As always, when I'm frightened in the bathroom (and why do these things always haunt the bathroom? Aren't there pleasanter places to hang around?) I become ultra efficient. I could hear the other woman finishing up at the sink and then maybe fussing a little with her hair. There were rustling noises and quiet shufflings as she made herself presentable. At least I wasn't alone.

I could still hear her at the mirror when I stepped out of the stall, ready to exchange pleasantries. And then I found that no one else was there. I understood with a bit of dread that I had probably been alone the entire time since she had already been washing her hands when I arrived. I went to the sink to wash my own and felt as if someone was standing at the doorway behind me, staring at me as if waiting for me to turn around. I was so uncomfortable that I kept changing my position at the sink to keep an eye on the doorway, finally winding up with my back practically to the mirror as I rinsed the soap from my hands. I dried off as quickly as possible and then realized that I didn't want to walk through that doorway. Something was there, I could feel it. Something cold and ominous. On the other hand, the last thing I wanted to do was stay in this dim, horrid-feeling bathroom.

I took a deep breath and had to check myself from breaking into a mad sprint to get back to the table. Jim gave me a funny look when I sat down, almost breathless, and I said, "There's something wrong with that bathroom."

Finally dinner ended, and we could go home. Fortunately, by that time I already owned a copy of Chicago's Street Guide to the Supernatural, by Richard Crowe. As soon as we arrived at the house, I grabbed the book off the shelf and looked up The Hideaway. And there it was. According to Mr. Crowe, The Hideaway was haunted on both the first and second floors, with the second floor being notorious for poltergeist activity, (At least we didn't experience that!)

The Hideaway closed its doors in 2012. I have no idea if the building itself still stands, but if it doesn't, I wonder if the area is finally at peace, or if those restless spirits still wander the site so familiar to them in life.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Writer's Memory

A short time ago, I posted about mind games I play with myself that I attributed to my writer's brain. Things like listing attributes of particular items off the top of my head, or cataloguing rock and roll songs, or even bands, into categories. The things we do when bored, eh?

Well, the other thing that I think many writers have is a weird memory. Not all writers I've spoken with do, but an awful lot of them, it turns out, remember minute details, conversations pretty much verbatim, and strange factoids. We can be killers at Trivial Pursuit.

I didn't realize not everyone remembers things that way. One time I was in the car with some friends and a song came on the radio. Someone said, "Who sings this again?" And without thinking, I gave her the name of the band, the year it came out, what grade level we were in in high school when the song hit the charts, and what I was wearing in my most vivid memory of listening to it back in the day. She gave me a very strange look and said, "Do you always do that?"

That. Shortly after the incident, I began to realize that not everyone remembers details like the fact that "The Addams Family" aired in Chicago on Friday nights and starred Carolyn Jones as Morticia. Or that the first time I ever saw Mark Hamill, he was playing Laurie Partridge's boyfriend, Jerry, on The Partridge Family. Then I saw him on General Hospital as the nephew of nurse Jessie Brewer. Well heck, going back to The Partridge Family, the first time I saw David Cassidy, he was playing an angry, diabetic kid on Marcus Welby, MD. I remembered both Mr. Hamill and Mr. Cassidy because they set off the "Cute Guy Alert" in my teeny-bopper brain.

I didn't think I was particularly weird because Jim can do lots of this, too. (Maybe he should be writing?) We can pretty much name every teacher we had in grade school, and what class we had with them. I haven't quizzed him recently, but I can also name every teacher I had in high school, including student teachers, what class each of them taught, and what grade I was in when I had them.
I know Sister Rosetta introduced me to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" in Cultural Heritage class, and I still remember her final exam where we had to identify the first movement of "Winter". Also, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", and a painting of Etruscan flute players.

Then there's the factoids: Alexander Graham Bell's wife was deaf; Pistol Pete Maravich scored 3,667 points during his college career at LSU (people who went to high school with me should smile at that one!); Cat Stevens wrote the Tremeloes' hit "Here Comes My Baby"; Liszt used to bring Chopin to parties with him because Chopin was the chick magnet... All sorts of strange items stuck away in my head that I don't always know are there until they pop out when the topic arises. Or when I'm watching Jeopardy. (Did you know that Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to Edgar Allen Poe as "The Jingle Man"? Got that one from my English prof freshman year at U of I. Also, Lord Byron had a club foot.)

Maybe there's a ton of you out there thinking, so what? I do that all the time, too. If so, perhaps YOU should be writing. I didn't think of it as being connected until I read an interview with Judy Blume who mentioned that she had a memory that hung onto details indefinitely. She then proceeded to describe her first day of Kindergarten, what she was wearing, what the teacher was wearing, and other particulars. Some might say that we all remember things like that because they're big days in our lives. And some of that may be true. But I remember (and I bet Ms. Blume does, too) things from days that weren't so important. Like my favorite nightgown when I was nine years old. I inherited it from my sister when she outgrew it, and I was so happy when I got it. Or how I used to make paper airplanes constantly and hid all the best-flying ones in the bookshelf that held our Encyclopedia Britannica. 

So what have you got stored away in your own memory system? Brilliant flashes of spectacular days? Wistful glimpses of days long gone? The mating habits of preying mantises? It's all good. And if you write, well, it can be even better!

(By the way, the top picture has nothing to do with this piece of writing - I just thought I'd throw that one up there since I hardly ever give it any "press time"!)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Paranormal Jeopardy, Round 1

I was going to write a totally different piece and then put the answers to my clues from yesterday's Facebook post at the bottom, but I decided to just focus on the answers. What the heck.

Here are the questions:

1. This infamous axe murderer from Fall River, MA lived in a house that is currently a museum and haunted Bed & Breakfast.

2. A doorway between the world of the living and the realm of the dead.

3. The ghost of this young wife of Henry the XIII can be seen running and shrieking at Hampton Court Palace where she was held before being beheaded at the Tower of London (which she also haunts.)

4. My friend Wikipedia defines this term as one used by spiritualists as "A substance of spiritual energy 'exteriorized' by physical mediums."

5. A small town in upstate New York that was settled and is still inhabited by mediums and psychics.

And here are the answers (please note #3 especially):

1. Who is Lizzie Borden?

2.  What is a portal?

3.  Who is Catherine Howard? *

4.  What is ectoplasm?

5.  What is Lily Dale?

* Anne Boleyn is a good guess because she also was famously beheaded by her husband's order. And she also haunts Hampton Court Palace (along with Hever Castle, Blickling Hall, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Salle Church, and Marwell Hall. Busy lady!) However, Lady Boleyn is usually seen with her head tucked under her arm, or possibly just headless altogether. She is also a quieter kind of spirit. Catherine Howard, however, is the one who runs and shrieks through Hampton Court Palace. Lady Howard also haunts the Tower of London.

 I could see by how quickly people chimed in that I need to make the questions a wee bit tougher next time around. In the meantime, thanks for playing!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Haunt in Your Hotel?

I bring up haunted hotels a great deal: on my Facebook posts, in this blog, even in the current book I'm writing. There seems to be no end of haunted hotels all the way around the planet. That said, I have yet to feel haunted in a hotel. (Gettysburg is the exception, but the dead soldier who visited with me wandered in from the battlefield, and I don't think he had anything to do with where I was staying.)

But truly. I've traveled, not extensively, but enough, since childhood (my dad loved travel) and all through my adult life. We've stayed at hotels, motels, and resorts, and never once have I ever felt that the place I rested my head every night was haunted. I have definitely felt a weird presence or two in dormitories where I've spent a night or more. That's a whole different ball of wax, since universities and colleges are notorious for their hauntings. But I've never yet felt it at a hotel.

I have encountered a bit of uneasiness. Jim and I were on a coach tour of the British Isles and Ireland, and there was a place in Dublin where we spent one night. That whole motel felt a bit strange, sort of dark and uneasy, like something else was hanging around and watching what we did. Jim admitted he felt it, too. But that was it. And see, that's the corker - we were all over England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and the motel in Dublin was the only place we felt anything even close to disturbed. To me, the U.K. and Ireland are like the mother lode for things that go bump in the night. But we got nothing. Maybe a large group of tourists is enough to make even the most extroverted spirits fade into the woodwork? I'll never really know.

BUT things may just be looking up.

For one thing, next month Jim and I and another couple are going to stay at a bed and breakfast down on the Mississippi that is purportedly haunted. The local ghost tour operator wants to put the place on the tour, but the owner has graciously declined. A few times. So there's a possibility I'll run into at least some mild activity there. The owner has assured me that it's a gentle presence that sometimes can be heard whistling, or doing other everyday activities like that. I should be okay even if that happens.

In addition to that, I'm including a hotel in the book I'm currently writing, and lucky for me, my niece works at a hotel. She's an employee of one of the bigger chains, and she has offered to give me a behind-the-scenes tour so I have an idea how hotels are really run. Knowing what I write about, she also volunteered to find out what paranormal things, if any, are going on at her particular establishment. "I know one of the employees died there," she began, and then stopped for a moment while she thought over the details. "Yes. And I know where he died," she added. So that's one place we can all check out. She also offered to look into things a little further to see if she could find any more strange activity around the place. And then she smiled at me. "And there's always room XYZ," she added. (Room number shielded to protect all parties, including the dead ones.) "We're always getting calls from that room [at the front desk]."

I needed a moment to process what she was saying. "You mean, you get calls from the room even though no one's there?"

"Yes," she said. "All the time."

Hmm. Can't wait to see what she digs up about the place before I go meet her there for my tour! And yes, I will be taking pictures to see if someone else shows up!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Inspiration Begets Inspiration

Inspiration is sometimes as tricky to find as the muse. When I have been stuck in my writing and no amount of coaxing, cajoling, mind games, or flat-out trickery can induce my muse to come back and grace me with her gifts, my creative stamina can flag pretty quickly.

Then I go actively looking for inspiration. That's not always easy. Sometimes I read. But if I'm in the wrong head, reading can become depressing because mental noise in the form of questions like "Well, this writer finished her book. What's wrong with you?" or ""That was really clever. Wish I'd thought of that," or best of all, "Look at how talented this writer is. You've got no chance." That' last observation is like the final kick to the head when I'm already flat on the ground. But believe me, that kick always comes. And I'll bet you lots of other writers have the same experience.

So one place I can turn for inspiration, and it's frequently safer, is music. According to my dictionary, "muse" and "music" have the same Greek root word, so I guess this shouldn't be a surprise. Music kick starts certain things inside of me. Scientifically, I've learned that music alters brain waves and for some of us, that helps us get in touch with our creative sides. I know that every character I've ever written has a theme song: Jake, Corts, Michael, Cassie - all of them have a song that brings them to me in a hurry, and that makes writing easier. Most of the time.

When I'm really and truly STUCK, even those theme songs don't help me. And then I wander farther afield looking for that spark I need. Vivaldi to Gregorian chant, favorite soundtracks to '60's classic rock, Beatles to Vapors with E.S. Posthumous along the way. All over the musical map, looking for help. (At the moment, I'm listening to a CD of of Irish music: specifically, "Music of Turlough O'Carolan on the Hammered Dulcimer, Vol. II," by Joemy Wilson. Amazing stuff. And at the moment, just was the doctor ordered while I tried to nail down a blog topic for this week.

This is a topic that, believe it or not, I think about quite a bit. Especially when I'm sitting at a concert and listening to a beloved piece of music being played live. So much talent on display, from the original composer, to the musicians who are playing what that composer wrote. And that holds as true for every rock band I've ever enjoyed  as for every orchestral presentation of my favorite Baroque concerto. I get to sit in the dark and let the wonder of that music wash over me. And when I'm really lucky, it triggers something in me related to my own writing. I always think, "I don't hold a candle to this...." but my muse brushes past that and continues to plant ideas in my head anyway. 

And that's sometimes the birth of my next inspiration.

All of us have our muses, musical or not, and when I experience the inspired works of others, I can't help but wonder what was in their heads when they conceived of what would ultimately become that painting, or that novel, or that evocative piece of music. Sometimes just contemplating what might have been going through their souls at the time of composition is enough to wound, even bring tears. Of wonder and amazement and gratitude because that artist or composer or writer was willing to share. And I wonder, what is it like to carry that magical feat around in your head? In your heart? I listen to the work of Bach or Horner or McCartney or Corelli, and I think, how does one survive with all that beauty held inside? And I guess the answer is, one doesn't. Otherwise no one would ever create anything. 

But sometimes it hurts.

Creating art of any kind is frequently compared to giving birth, and that's apt, in terms of going through pain to produce something original and extraordinary. Creating can hurt. And it can also hurt to be in the presence of true creation, true beauty. But being a party to it, whether as the maker or the witness, is also a wonder and a privilege. And thank God for it.