Category Archives: GhoStory Guru
I did not grow up in a haunted house. Well, I did, but it wasn’t haunted in the way most people think—it was haunted by all of its occupants’ sorrow. There was no mistaking the creepy, oppressive feeling the second anyone crossed the threshold. I always felt that the house had a personality, and not a pleasant one.
Recently, while knocking around Baltimore’s Normals book store, I came across a collection of ghost stories I’d never seen or heard of before: Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, edited by the familiar Martin H. Greenberg (if you’re a ghost story freak, then you know who this man is and why anything with his name on it is a collection you simply must own). The collection has stories by some big names: Charles L. Grant, Joyce Carol Oates, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,HughB.Cave. This was a tome of classics.
It was likely I would be featuring some of these stories in upcoming GhoStory Guru columns, so I dove right in. Before I could even get started, I was captivated by Greenberg’s Introduction: “Haunted Houses: The American Nightmare.” Greenberg writes:
“Several films have…[played] on the fear of discovering an unknown evil in the place which is supposedly a sanctuary for your family, and making it perhaps the greatest terror of all.
“If a house in a story or film is found out to be haunted, the reader’s first reaction may be sympathy for the main characters. After all, they’re just trying to find shelter, to provide a basic human need. It’s not their fault that the dwelling they chose had a sometimes unspeakable history that’s now causing them to suffer.
“But if you look at the situation from the other side, who is the interloper? Aren’t the people who move in trying to impose their own sense of history on the house, replacing what happened years ago with their memories, their emotions? Some houses may resist this change. Some may resist violently.”
I found this very interesting within the context of the house in which I grew up.
There’s a theory out there that residual hauntings exist because the structure’s materials—like wood, tile, sheetrock, maybe even carpet—“absorb” the energy from a past event and replay it periodically: the “ghost” we’re seeing isn’t intelligent, it’s just a playback, as on a videotape. The same has been said about the materials absorbing the emotions of the people who frequented or lived in it: for example, a home can make a person feel on edge the second he steps inside it if the home’s occupant has exuded nothing but anger for fifty years.
I wasn’t sure I supported this theory until after my childhood home’s renovation was complete: although the pine boards were intact and hadn’t been touched or changed, the sheetrock in nearly every room was brand new, as was paint and carpet. And even though there hadn’t been much change in terms of color scheme and layout, the house felt completely different. It didn’t feel creepy anymore. The oppression was gone.
Out in the driveway, I walked past the dumpster that held the discarded carpet and sheetrock. I had an odd feeling when I passed: I guess you’d call it spooked. I hurried to my car, and on the drive home, I marveled at the house’s new atmosphere and my very strange reaction to the dumpster.
In short, the house was no longer “haunted” because the materials that had retained the sorrow and grief had been removed. And the house seemed to be, well—happier about it.
The new family is, I’m sure, working hard to create its own memories within the house’s walls—making it, as Greenberg pointed out, a “sanctuary”—but what if some tragedy befalls them and the cycle starts all over again? The Haunted House isn’t necessarily about what’s there before we arrive; it’s about what we create while we’re in it—and what we leave behind.
If you’re interested in the Greenberg collection Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, you can get it here: http://amzn.com/1567311687
GhoStory Guru: The Woman in Black—A Ghost Play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the book by Susan Hill
With the recent release of the new film, The Woman in Black has been much talked about. The original Hill is certainly a classic, as it deserves to be. But it’s also a play, and if you love ghost stories and haven’t read it, this piece is certainly worth reading—and owning.
I spent many years in community theatre both as an actress and stagehand, so for me, reading plays isn’t difficult. Reading plays and feeling true emotion while doing it, however, sometimes can be—stage directions in the script can provide a disruption in the flow of the work. Although the descriptive passages spoken by the actors in The Woman in Black certainly do their part in sending chills up the spine, in this case, it’s the stage directions that make this thing scary.
Consider, for example: “Kipps moves inside. A light illuminates the door, and as we look, we see it slowly open. The light is outside the door, but not inside. Kipps approaches in fear and caution, then shines his torch inside. The only light comes from this torch, and we see by it that the rocking chair is in motion—rocking backwards and forwards apparently of its own volition—and it is this that we have heard, echoing on the floor boards. As he shines the torch on it, it rocks less and less until it stops.”
Or this: “Kipps switches on the lights as: The Woman in Black leaves the stage—momentarily glimpsed.”
In addition: as we all know, the sense of sound is very important in a ghost story. What’s nice about reading this play is the sounds you’re supposed to hear are sparingly rendered: “They trot on, the silence broken by nothing but the sound of the pony, and occasional, harsh, weird cries from birds.”; “There is the sound effect of Kipps running, the thud of his footsteps, the panting of his breath.”
The Woman in Black—A Ghost Play succeeds as a straight read because the simply-described desired movements of the actors create an easy image in the reader’s mind—images that will, more than likely, haunt the reader for quite awhile.
The Woman in Black—A Ghost Play (in fact, the edition I own) is available at Amazon here: http://amzn.com/0573040192
Welcome to winter…in my opinion, the best season in which to set a ghost story (that is, if your story setting is somewhere that gets cold, snowy, gray, and damp). While winter’s characteristics seem to make it an obvious choice, it still takes a great writer to exploit them properly to evoke the shivers.
No story does this better than Amelia Ann Blandford’s Victorian chiller “The Phantom Coach,” set in December on “a bleak wide moor in the far north of England.” Consider: “…the first feathery flakes of a coming snowstorm just fluttering down upon the heather and the leaden evening closing in all around. I…stared anxiously into the gathering darkness, where the purple moorland melted into a range of low hills, some ten or twelve miles distant.” It’s the “feathery flakes…fluttering” that creates the sound of snow in the reader’s ear, and even when our weary lost man is given shelter in the warmth of a cottage (complete with odd owner, creepy manservant, and scary tall tale), it’s hard to escape the press of the barren lands just outside the walls. By the time we reach that terrifying climactic scene (there’s one paragraph that’s so frightening the image it created is burned into my mind—I’d love to print it here, but I’d spoil it for all of you), we’re as damp, cold, and isolated as the narrator—and that chill is unshakable well after we’ve digested the story’s shocking last line.
Don’t miss reading this by the fireplace. For sure.
“The Phantom Coach” is found in 1996’s Wordsworth Classics publication Classic Victorian & Edwardian Ghost Stories (the edition selected by Rex Collings). You can purchase it here: http://amzn.com/1853261866
If you’re a ghost story lover and you haven’t read Ambrose Bierce’s classic “The Boarded Window,” then I’m surprised…but it’s never too late, and if you’re anything like me, then discovering a classic you missed can sometimes be more fun than reading something that was just published: you know you’re getting something so good it’s withstood the test of time.
I had read this so long ago I didn’t even remember it, and what a ride. What makes “The Boarded Window”—which deals with themes of loss and grief—so striking is how vividly it brings the foreboding newness of the American West to life for modern-day audiences by comparing it to the foreboding newness of widowhood. Bierce, through well-chosen words, conveys the maddening loneliness of the pioneering landscape and the lifestyle required to survive in it, lulling us into pity. And then there’s an ending you truly never see coming that drives you from pity to feeling this man’s suffering in your own gut.
Although “The Boarded Window” is popular enough that it’s probably available in a number of print and electronic collections, the copy that I have appears in Penguin 60s’ Three Tales of Horror with Poe’s “Hop Frog” and Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” so if you want a triple-threat you can literally carry with you in your pocket or purse, this is the edition you want. Penguin 60s were issued in the mid-1990s and were limited and all out of print now, but inexpensive used copies are available at the Amazon Marketplace here: http://amzn.com/0146000900
If you’ve listened to any of my radio interviews, then you know that I’ve often credited my love of ghost stories to W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” which I read when I was probably way too young (I had the most vivid imagination and all it took was the right mental image to make my life—and my parents’—a hellish experience for nights on end).
There’s a reason I love Dali’s painting “Persistence of Memory”—because time can warp how we remember things so easily. When I was sorting through boxes of things to toss because we’re moving, I came across a beloved childhood book I’d forgotten about—Chilling Ghost Stories by Bernhardt J. Hurwood.
Published by Scholastic in 1973, I had undoubtedly bought it at one of the Book Fairs at our elementary school. As I held it in my hands, I remembered, suddenly, a terrifying mental image that had come from one of the stories in the book—and subsequently, that “The Monkey’s Paw” actually wasn’t the piece that inspired my love of ghost stories.
It was the story that had sparked this one horrifying image.
I recalled enough of the story’s details (as well as the image itself) that it wasn’t hard to figure out which one it had been: “The Midnight Ghost.” I won’t put the details here, as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
What I will say about “The Midnight Ghost” is this: despite the fact that it’s written for young children, it’s still pretty scary. What makes it scary, in this case, are the lean and simple descriptive details. Just a few elementary-school-level words in the right order can yield frightening, definitive, powerful images. And I was reminded that sometimes the best scares are the simplest.
“The Midnight Ghost” appears between pages 28 and 36 of this tiny volume. There’s bad news and good news about Chilling Ghost Stories by Bernhardt J. Hurwood: the bad news is its 1973 publishing date renders it out of print. The GOOD news? There are loads and loads of CHEAP USED COPIES out there at the Amazon Marketplace! http://amzn.com/0590029797
Even if you’re an adult, you’ll want to own this. I can guarantee a scare in under three minutes. And if you’re as busy as I am—well, then there’s a certain beauty in that, too.
October may be a strange time to choose to put GhoStory Guru on hiatus, but this month, I decided to do a special five-part series on Disney’s Haunted Mansion and the real ghost stories that may have inspired some of its scenes. The series runs every Monday, and on Sunday, October 30, 2011, I’m releasing a never-before-published short story from the original Tales from Haunted Disney World collection called “Grave Error,” written just for Haunted Mansion fans.
Here are the links to episodes #1 – #4 of “A Lit Look at the Haunted Mansion.” Enjoy, and visit this blog on Sunday, October 30 for that Halloween Treat!
A “Lit” Look at Disney’s HauntedMansion: The Cemetery’s Caretaker & Dog http://wp.me/pIXRs-Y1
A “Lit” Look at Disney’s HauntedMansion: The Attic’s Portrait http://wp.me/pIXRs-Y7
A “Lit” Look at Disney’s Haunted Mansion: The Skeleton in the Coffin http://wp.me/pIXRs-Yd
A “Lit” Look at Disney’s HauntedMansion: The Changing Portrait Hallway’s Ghost Ship http://wp.me/pIXRs-Yk
October may be a strange time to choose to put GhoStory Guru on hiatus, but this month, I decided to do a special five-part series on Disney’sHauntedMansionand the real ghost stories that may have inspired some of its scenes. The series runs every Monday, and on Sunday, October 30, 2011, I’m releasing a never-before-published short story from the original Tales from Haunted Disney World collection called “Grave Error,” written just for Haunted Mansion fans.
Here are the links to episodes #1 and #2 of “A Lit Look at the Haunted Mansion.” Enjoy and have a safe and happy Halloween!
A “Lit” Look at Disney’s HauntedMansion: The Cemetery’s Caretaker & Dog http://wp.me/pIXRs-Y1
A “Lit” Look at Disney’s HauntedMansion: The Attic’s Portrait http://wp.me/pIXRs-Y7
As you can imagine, I’ve read many excellent ghost stories; it’s always a pleasure when I discover a new one to add to my “favorites list.”
What makes a favorite? Technically, it’s got to have all the qualities of a well-written short story: character/conflict/crisis/change (or lack thereof); fine motiving; tactile atmosphere; elements which come to fruition, a few more. Emotionally? It’s got to pierce my marrow, obliterate reality, and leave me gasping, “Wow!”
Maynard & Sims’ “At the End of the Pier” does all that and more. To the subtle “Everyman” twist on Poe’s trigger theory exhibited in such tales as “The Tell-Tale Heart” to an atmosphere so well-crafted we can taste the sea spray, “At the End of the Pier” is perfection. Every ghost story lover should curl up with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in his favorite spot, take a time out from life, and enjoy.
“At the End of the Pier” appears in Maynard & Sims’ fine collection Echoes of Darkness, published by Sarob Press in 2000. Few copies are available, and they are mostly second-hand. However, if you have a Kindle (or Kindle for PC), you can purchase the entire collection here: http://amzn.com/B00506U3L0
To read an interview of Maynard & Sims written by Peter D. Schwotzer, visit here: http://famousmonstersoffilmland.com/2009/04/07/interview-lhmaynard-mpnsims/
To learn more about the Echoes of Darkness collection, visit here:
Ever had an inanimate object give you the creeps? If you have, then you’ll identify strongly with Alison Lurie’s disturbing “The Highboy.” If you haven’t? Then this story is the best way to connect with that feeling without having to go through it (yes, I know, cheap thrill).
What gives this story its creep-factor—well, other than the very subject itself—is Lurie’s diction: this modern tale is peppered with antiquated words and phrases to invoke the feel of many of the classics.
Read “The Highboy” and the next time you go into your dining room, you might just give that really ugly inherited antique a second glance.
“The Highboy” is found in Lurie’s 1994 collection, Women & Ghosts. You can purchase it here: http://amzn.com/0385518315
The ghost story has developed enough over the years that there are certain plots, characters, settings, and themes that pop up over and over again to the point at which they are considered cliché. Sometimes, use of these can make for tired reading: this is like “XX” by Poe/Hawthorne/Whoever; this has been done to death; I suspect I know how this ends, so I’m not going to bother to finish.
Yet, there is a place in the ghost story canon for some of these—because they work. In the hands of the right person—who is usually doing this intentionally—a few of these slightly skewed and combined can still make for a read that ends in surprise and is one hell of a joyride on the way.
What’s difficult about placing a story of this ilk is the level of skill required to spot one. Some haven’t studied the genre enough to understand the technique; case in point: my short story “Denigrating David,” was rejected by a few people, and the one that impressed me the least was from someone who wrote, “Our reader says there are things wrong with this that can’t be fixed.” The one that impressed me the most was from an editor who totally understood and appreciated what I was doing, but didn’t care for it and took the time to discuss what she thought might have been done differently. Three other editors, however, were quite pleased and all the acceptances, strangely, came in on the same day—I chose the one that came in first. It now appears in State of Imagination’s Issue 3.
“Ghostwriter,” by Edward Lodi, is a piece like “Denigrating.” In his introduction to the story, he writes that he found the manuscript in a drawer and realized he’d written it 25 years before—but didn’t remember why he’d shoved it aside for that long. I could guess—and I’m glad he chose to get it in print.
I can’t tell you what he used or how he skewed them because I will ruin it for those of you that are curious enough to check it out. But I can tell you that if you love the classic horror and ghost story hallmarks you’d find in Poe or even Lovecraft, but you’re looking for something that’s fresh and still going to surprise you, then “Ghostwriter” is a fun, uncomplicated, chilling little chocolate in which you just have to indulge.
“Ghostwriter” can be found in Till Human Voices Wake Us…The Lost Ghost Stories of Edward Lodi, which was published in 2009 in a limited run of 400 copies. It’s a beautiful volume, and should be on every ghost story lover’s shelf. The original price was $27.50, and there are a couple near that in stock through Amazon Marketplace here: http://amzn.com/1934400157