Thursday, June 27, 2019

So Why Not Animals?

Just this morning my grandson was putting on his shoes, getting ready so that I could take him to summer camp, when he stood up and jumped a little, brushing his hand next to the side of his calf. "Oh!" he said.

"What?" I asked. I thought maybe a mosquito had bitten him. We have renegade mosquitoes that sneak into our house and munch on us when we least suspect it.

"I thought I saw a cat," he said. He looked embarrassed.

And I felt that funny twinge I sometimes get when he tells me what he sees. For one thing, this grandson is THE grandson, the one who saw the boy in his bedroom by his rocking horse so many years ago. The one who told me the previous owners to this house were dead. The one who saw the foot emerging from the laundry room that night.

Just out of curiosity I asked, "What color was it?"

"What color was what?" His eleven-year old brain had already moved onto more interesting topics.

"The cat you saw. What color was it?"

"Oh." Again he looked embarrassed. "It was orange."

I thought about that. Just the other week, his mother (she who sees dead people) asked me if I had seen a cat hanging around the house. Now, just to be clear, we don't have pets. None. Nada. I was a zookeeper while my kids were growing up. At different times, sometimes simultaneously, we went through three parakeets, one parrot, two guinea pigs, two dogs, three cats, two iguanas, a box turtle, and an ant farm. As far as animals go, I'm done. But if it came to having a pet these days, it would most definitely not be a cat, since my grandson is very allergic to them and has borderline asthma. So no cats in the house.

When I asked my daughter for more information about the cat she was seeing, she said that it was definitely in the house, not outside, and that it was black. "Sometimes it follows me down the hall to the refrigerator," she explained. "Sometimes it just sits there and looks at me."

We had two different black cats pass through this house so I asked if it looked like either Willie or Orion, but she said no. 

So. A black cat in the house except we don't have cats. Before I had time to think about that much, she volunteered that when it comes to our hall, it isn't just dead people who walk through the house from our utility room. She mentioned that "other things" come through as well.

Other things? Not something I really wanted to hear, but she was quick to reassure me that none of them seemed evil or malevolent. Just different. 

When Amy Allen, on The Dead Files, talks about beings that come in from other dimensions, they never sound like a good thing. But I have to admit that even with my lesser sensitivity I've never felt anything particularly negative or dark come strolling down that hall, either.

I guess if we can have dead people and unidentifiable beings coming through our house, a few animals here and there wouldn't be so out of line. So why not a cat, whether black or orange? What the heck. A cat is a cat. 

Even if it's dead.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Weird Buildings

The first places people seem to think of as being haunted are castles in Europe. After that, hospitals, prisons, facilities for the mentally ill, hotels, and schools seem to follow, not necessarily in that order. I have been in any number of hotels that are reputed to be haunted and never felt a thing. On the other hand, I've also been in a number of places that aren't necessarily known for being paranormally disturbed, and felt plenty. Except for one hotel, all of them were schools.

The one hotel was in Ireland. Makes sense, right? Ireland is famous for its otherworldly inhabitants, from leprechauns and other fae entities, to all sorts of ghosts and spirits. During our trip to the Emerald Isle, Jim and I had a room in a hotel in Dublin that was uneasy. The room was comfortable enough: nice beds, clean washroom, homey furniture. But it was at the end of a very long hall -and I mean long, like the length of two office buildings put together- and as far away from the stairs and exit as would be humanly possible. And that was the interesting thing about this hotel. It was a converted office building. Or maybe buildings .I know that not only was the hall a long walk from the stairwell, it had double doors closing off the part of the corridor that held our room. Hmm. I might have said it was just me, but Jim felt it, too, and his thoughts aren't constantly straying to the supernatural like mine are.

There was something weird about my high school. Any of my fellow alumnae reading this blog may or may not agree with me (and I'll be curious to know!) but I would swear there was something lurking on the second floor of the new addition. It wasn't the old building that felt disturbed, it was the new wing. I used to stay late after school was dismissed when I was working on the yearbook my junior and senior years, and although the yearbook/newspaper office was in the old building, I was forever winding up in the new wing for one thing or another, and I didn't enjoy that. There was always a feeling of something following me, and walking faster to get away from it made things worse. Then it felt like being chased. And see, even though I've ALWAYS loved a good ghost story, I certainly wasn't roving my high school looking for spirits. But there was something about that floor.

Then there was the workshop I attended at Northern Illinois University one summer. I was only there for four nights or so, but it was enough to make me feel like there was something wrong with my room. For one thing, I had a nightmare every night I was there, and that's unusual for me. I dream every night and know it, and I remember the really bad ones. But they tend to be few in number per year, and that summer I had four nights in a row of bad dreams. Also, something in the corner of the room made inexplicable clicking noises as soon as I turned out the light. 

Anyone from Illinois know Dominican University? I went to a weekend writing event there and while I like the grounds of the university, and while the writing workshops themselves were great, the dormitory was old and creepy. During the day it was clean and airy and efficient: the building was designed in another time and the rooms were almost like monastic cells, each of them containing a narrow bed, a desk, and a chair. Mine also had a sink. But for the showers and the toilets, I had to walk down the hall to an intersecting corridor that overlooked a chapel, and then into another hall that led to the women's bathroom facility. Getting up to use the restroom in the middle of the night was a trip. Nothing like walking through a hall overlooking a chapel in midnight darkness -moving statues, anyone? YIKES. I had two nights there and that was plenty. It did remind me, though, of the feeling I am always trying to convey when I write a paranormal scene.

Frustrating as it may be, I never did find out backstories on any of these locations: not the hotel in Ireland, nor any of the schools that succeeded in freaking me out at the time I was there. I'd love to know more, but having neither Michael Penfield's nor Cassie Valentine's abilities, I guess I will just remember them as items on my list of weird experiences.

I don't go looking for ghosts, and I don't think they come looking for me. I guess we just run into each other from time to time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The "Ick" Factor

I read and (try to) write scary stories. I'm very specific about what I like to read, and what I'm trying to do with my own work. I want a good, scary, even creepy, ghost story with a reasonable amount of chills and if possible, a nice ending. And there are ghost stories out there besides mine that have nice endings, so I know it's not just me.

Horror stories, on the other hand, sometimes include something I refer to as the "ick" factor. What is that, you might ask? Let me explain it this way. Have you ever read a story or a novel, be it supernatural, horror, murder mystery, thriller, or other suspenseful fiction, that hit you in a way that made you wish that your brain could take a shower? That would be the ick factor.

There are writers who have made entire careers out of it. Read enough Edgar Allen Poe and you'll be wishing for an industrial-strength brain laundromat. I know, because I've done it: that is, read an entire collection of Poe without interruption. Nothing like reading hours of him nonstop to get that cringe-y feeling around the edges of the mind. Or maybe even dead center.

Maybe a more correct way of saying it is to call these stories as "disturbing." I'm sure everyone reading this post has hit one, two, or lots more of those sorts of tales during your reading adventures. For a real novel-length experience, Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home comes to mind. I know people who absolutely love the book, and on the surface, why not? It's set in New England in the fall and full of festivals, pumpkins, scarecrows, and straw. Very atmospheric. Until it all goes really wrong for the protagonist and I mean WRONG. I guess I shouldn't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet and would like to, but let's just say the book put me right off of small town living for years. Maybe even still. There are times Jim and I are on a road trip and when we drive through certain towns, I think of Harvest Home.

Hannibal Lector, on the other hand, made me want to scrub my brain with Pine Sol. I know people who love him as a character, too. I watched the movie Manhunter (the original with William Peterson and Brian Cox) and that was enough for me. I tried reading Red Dragon and gave it up pretty early into it. I didn't like having Dr. Lector hanging around in my brain, lurking around the corners of my thoughts and popping up unexpectedly in nasty ways.

And there is the crux of it, for me. I have a hard enough time reading stories like that. The idea of writing a story like that is entirely beyond my boundaries. Writing for me -and I'm sure it's true for all writers- means living with my characters, frequently on a twenty-four-seven basis. Would I want someone like Lector on my mind twenty-four-seven? There is no way I could do that. No way I would want to do that. So I can't write stories with an ick factor. I just can't.

Stephen King skirts the edge of it very well. He once said that if he couldn't scare his readers, he would be fine hitting them with "the gross-out." And yes, he certainly does that from time to time. (Short story "The Mangler" comes to mind.) Yet even with that kind of gore, to me he still manages to avoid that level of disturbing that makes me cringe and slink away. I don't know how he does it, but he does.

I can't imagine, and I'm really not interested in trying, writing an entire novel around a thoroughly reprehensible, repulsive character or situation. I hand it to those authors who can because it brings a quality to their writing that I can never have. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder what is going through their heads at any given moment. I trust I would not pick any of those writers for trying a Vulcan mind-meld. No thank you.

Maybe you are the kind of reader who doesn't mind, or even likes, that certain quality in your fiction. Your taste is a wider palette than mine will ever be and that's probably a good thing. I just know I can't do it myself, because disturbing stays with you forever, whether as a reader or a writer. 

And that's not just in straight paranormal or even horror.

Deliverance, anyone?

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Very Old School

Today I'm departing from the paranormal to wax nostalgic. I'm actually a very nostalgic person and get everything from homesick to downright sad about some things that used to be and aren't any longer. Maybe, as counselors say, I have "trouble with transitioning," a bit of a struggle letting go of the old and going on with the new. Maybe it's because I have this weird memory function that holds onto details and colors and sounds from my past (ask me the name of every grade school and high school teacher I've ever had and I already know I can name them all.) So sometimes I do miss things that most people probably don't even think about any longer.

Today I'm missing phone books. Yup, good, old-fashioned, thick-as-a-brick phone books. It occurred to me a few minutes ago that the information I was seeking on the Internet about my particular financial institution (i.e., what time does it open today?) I would at one time have sought by using the phone book. In the old days, I would have called and gotten a voice mail message telling me they weren't open yet and then listing their hours. In the VERY old days, I would have gotten no answer at all and thus would know that the place was still closed. And then I would have been calling back until someone picked  up on the other end and I would know they were (finally) open for business. Anyone else remember doing that?

Remember when there were actual phone books in actual phone booths? Even in The Terminator, a movie from not that long ago, Arnold Schwartzenegger's terrifying mechanical killer found all the Sarah Connors listed in a phone book and ripped that page out for reference. It's been a long time, but I think that phone book was in a phone booth.

But phone books - huge, honking things, if you lived in Chicago - could be incredibly versatile. I knew someone who killed cockroaches by dropping her phone book on them. Well, actually I don't know if the phone book was enough to kill the things, or if it just stunned them enough that she could take proper aim with her heavily-shod foot. I don't normally kill things like beetles or spiders myself, but I could definitely see dropping a phone book on a cockroach.

They functioned very well as doorstops and paper weights.

I remember that when the new books arrived, I would take the old one and put it in my car for easy reference, in the days before cellphones. It was great for looking up restaurants, spur of the moment.

In grade school, did anyone else ever try looking up their teachers? Just for the heck of it?

And remember entertainers who could memorize pages of a phone book and then spit the information out on demand? I mean, who can do that kind of thing???

But one of the things I miss the most about the big White Pages was having the handiest resource around for character names. Last names, sometimes first names -it was a five-pound list of names, something that every writer needs to be able to come up with, and so frequently needs help doing. Sometimes I went through all the names under a specific letter just for fun, to see what came up. I think "Johnson," "Smith," and "Jones" literally had pages of listings. But if I needed an Irish-sounding name, I knew where to look (see: "Mc"). Ditto for German (try under "Sch-"). 

Street names were also presented in copious lists, and that was sooo helpful.

I liked the Yellow Pages because they suggested possible occupations or career paths for characters. Or, when I was writing as a kid, occupations or career paths for my characters' parents. And some of the ads were just interesting. In the days before clip-art it was fun to look at carefully drawn ants in the exterminator ads, or the happy, smiling heads that might frame an ad for carpet cleaning.

These days out here in my suburb, we still get local phone books delivered, but all of them are pretty small and they're actually sad-looking things. I guess someone still prints them for people like me who are nostalgic, or for people older than me who really don't like looking up things online or on their phones. But these new books are not as much fun. I do miss the old ones and wish I had hung onto at least one copy of the White Pages, but in a moment of responsibility, I recycled the last of them. I was being green and doing the right thing for the planet. 

But dang it.