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Jinkies! It’s a haunted toaster oven!

Haunted Toaster Oven

The toaster oven in question. I have no idea how old it is, but it’s…OLD.

Whether or not you believe in the supernatural, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve probably had at least one thing happen to you that defies explanation.

Do I believe in the supernatural? Yes, I do. I have since I had something I had no explanation for happen to me in college back in 1989 (which is too terrifying for me to write about. I think there’s maybe one interview someplace in which I bring it up, but that’s it); and in 2007, on a dark road late at night, a person in a white runner’s outfit ran in front of my car. I slammed on the brakes, and, heart racing, I leapt from the driver’s seat to find out if the person was okay.

There was no person in white runner’s shorts, and there was no sound of the crunching of leaves in the nearby woods.

I called “hello?” without response.

There was no one on that road but me.

No head-scratching experiences since then—until last week.

I was with my sister and brother and their families at my aunt’s house for what you might call an early Thanksgiving. In its glory days, the three-family house was the social center of a large Italian family. There were Sunday dinners, all-nighter New Year’s Eves, endless pinochle games, summer picnics in the screen house, fresh vegetables from the garden and jugs of plain awful homemade wine. The generations that were responsible for all of that are pretty much gone, but the house, built very early in the 20th century, still stands.

So does a bunch of stuff in the basement.

My brother and his family were rummaging around down there, finding things like original Burger King Star Wars glassware in mint condition, century-old cookbooks, and Disney board games no one’s seen since the 1950s.

I was standing in the kitchen. Just as I saw them emerge from the basement, I heard the bell on the ancient toaster oven go off.

My first thought was that my aunt—who is now suffering from a form of dementia—had perhaps gotten up and come into the kitchen and turned on the toaster oven. I knew, though, that this wasn’t possible—I’d just spent the past hour with her, and she hadn’t moved from her chair.

I said something to Maryanne. She said, “Sometimes that bell just goes off.” And it is possible someone could have jostled it earlier in the day, when we were all cooking in the kitchen.

Then I touched it, and it was hot.

Which would’ve been fine—except that it was unplugged.

I called my husband Nathan, who’s a retired paranormal investigator. He gave me a list of things to check, so we all discussed the possibilities: was it sitting in direct sunlight? No. It’s over the spot in the basement where the furnace is, so are the cabinets underneath hot from heat that could be coming up through the floor? No. Did Uncle Lou, who came over to the area a few minutes prior to get a glass of water, use the toaster oven? We asked; the answer was no. Had either of my brother’s sons played with it? We asked; no, and anyway, they were down in the basement the whole time. A toaster oven might retain heat. Has it been used in the past twelve hours? No; its last use was two days prior, and no toaster oven retains heat for over 48 hours. Could it have a short? Well, sure, yes, but how does a toaster oven, which doesn’t have any battery back-up, have a short and get hot when there’s no power source?

So there you have it. Absolutely no explanation. If anybody has any ideas, I’m all ears. Otherwise? I’m chalking this one up to the supernatural.

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Short Film: Ghost Story by Steven Cameron Ferguson

This just under 12-minute short film was shot on location in Glasgow, Scotland, and was nominated for a Royal Television Society award. Sweet rather than scary, this ghost story is probably the perfect accompaniment to your morning coffee. http://vimeo.com/13292694

Review: In Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, Spooky Dwellings Get a Fresh Coat of Paint

Haunted Houses Review Art

I suppose it could be argued that there isn’t a “new” way to write a haunted house story—how many unique things can you really do with a haunted house, after all?—but after reading Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, if such an argument were ever to be presented, I’d be on the side of the defense.

This collection isn’t short on classics—Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”—nor is it short on some standardly-hallmarked, but still fun, pieces: Henry Slesar’s “The Right Kind of House” if you love a nail-biting mystery;  Robert Aickman’s “The School Friend” if you love a little odd romance; “The Haunting of Shawley Rectory” if you like a ghost hunt; Michael Raeves’ “The Tearing of Graymare,” if you like a good scare.

But it’s the several stories with unique takes that make this collection a must-have.

Robert Bloch’s “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe,” while I found had one unbelievable moment as a character leaps to rather sudden conclusion (I would have founded this with at least one mention or thought earlier on in the story so it didn’t feel like it came out of nowhere), is a riveting page-turner while simultaneously creating a sense of leaden, pondering dread in the middle of a summer day through the use of a decay motif. And the subtly-foreshadowed ending is a total shocker. I won’t provide any other spoilers here except to note that the story is not about Lizzie Borden, but if you really want to make this one hell of a ride, you’d do well to read Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders” first (Carter’s short was first published in 1981 and again in 1985; Bloch’s was first published in 1946. Who knows if Carter read Bloch’s story, but I find the connection between the two makes me think Carter may have been directly inspired).

Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Doll” is what you’d expect of her unique psychological horror, but when applied to the haunted house story, it’s definitely not what you’d expect (think about the story’s title a little bit and you might figure out why)—and deals a wallop of a commentary on the long reach of our childhood’s shadows. Similar in theme is William F. Nolan’s “Dark Winner,” which isn’t surprising, since he’s the genius behind Logan’s Run. What is surprising about “Dark Winner” is the storytelling itself. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it’s tough to pull of this particular style and not bore the crap out of your readers. Nolan not only nails it, he gets the job done quick and dirty. I couldn’t put the story down. Charles L. Grant’s “The Children, They Laugh So Sweetly” also looks at the haunted house in connection with children, but through the eyes of—if I even mention it, I’ll blow the story’s surprise ending.

Years ago, I’d read Jack L. Chalker’s “No Hiding Place” and had loved it—and given its completely odd take on the Haunted House, I’m not surprised it was included in this collection (it appeared in his 1988 collection Dance Band on the Titanic, which had, that year, been a birthday gift from my Dad): this one will trash everything you know about haunted house lore.

The most fun piece, though, is Margaret St. Claire’s “The House in Bel Aire.” This is one take on a haunted house story that was so fresh I had to read it twice. For all the haunted house tales I’ve read over the years, I can’t think of any even remotely reminiscent of this one. I have never read anything like this and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either.

Anthologies and collections can be uneven, and this one is no exception. Just as there are solid and creative stories in this collection, there are weaker ones, too.

I felt that Edward Bryant’s “Teeth Marks,” which started off in a gripping, chilling voice, collapsed because it was told from alternating POVs; it was like walking on an uneven floor. Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Cat Jumps,” despite its well-developed atmosphere, was peopled with cardboard characters, lacked suspense, and had a what-the-hell-does-this-have-to-do-with-the-last-five-pages-I-just-struggled-through? ending.

I didn’t mention all the stories in here; there are a few more, and Greenberg’s introduction alone, in which he examines why tainted home stories are scary, makes the purchase of this book a worthwhile endeavor. So if spooky dwellings are your thing, you should own this collection.

It definitely puts a fresh coat of paint on the old haunted house.

You can purchase Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories by Martin Harry Greenberg at Amazon here: http://amzn.com/1567311687.

GhoStory Guru: The Nature of the Haunted House

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

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