Welcome to Part Two of Blogging the Ghost, our celebration of Ghost Month.
If you missed the BTG kickoff podcast at Dark Discussions with our brilliant host Philip Perron, you can still listen to it here.
Now it’s time for today’s offering, which I’m really excited about, and I’m sure you’ll share that excitement when you discover the two great pieces we have for you—a damn-near novelette-sized ghost story from Joe McKinney, and an essay from the talented Peter N. Dudar about his favorite ghost story.
If you haven’t read Mr. Dudar’s outstanding haunted house novel from Nightscape Press, A Requiem for Dead Flies, you can pick it up here. Joe McKinney’s paranormal police procedural, Inheritance, is coming in November from Evil Jester Press. And in October, my strange ghost novella, Sunfall Manor, will be released by Nightscape Press. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to talk about that one for a bit…
When it comes time to work on a particular project, it’s usually because I’ve signed a contract to write it or it’s been on my schedule of spec projects for a long time. Commitments are important to me. I don’t miss deadlines, I stay busy, and I follow my plans. I’m a very goal oriented writer and editor, and I’m notoriously “tick-tock” in my clockwork ways.
ButSunfall Manor is different. It never showed up on a schedule because it wasn’t planned. And yet it’s the piece of long fiction that I’m most proud of; the piece that I’d be the most willing to hand to family members and say, “Here, read this. This is what I do.”
I don’t want to talk about the influences associated with the novella. I talked about that stuff in detail on the Dark Discussions podcast, and I hope you will listen to it. I simply hate to repeat myself. I’m not saying I don’t frequently do it. I just hate it.
What I will talk about is time. Time has much to do with Sunfall Manor, both in what allowed the work to live and in the themes the book explores.
Many see time as the enemy. And ultimately, they’re right. Entropy, regardless of your spiritual bent or worldview, is impossible to refute. Try. You’ll fail.
But time can also be an ally. Yes, an ally. Sure, we fear the ticking clock. We dread the things we have to do, and our ultimate demise. But there’s something I like to call “Earned Time.”
Earned Time is routinely when I watch movies, read books, and take vacations. It’s the window that comes at the end of a really long and dark hallway, a period in which I push myself hard to not only get things done on schedule but to get them done ahead of schedule. Sometimes I earn an extra week, sometimes two.
This past June, after finishing my novel BeyondAnon way ahead of schedule, I had a bunch of time on my hands. Tommy Shaw from the rock band Styx might have said, “Too Much Time on My Hands.” But I didn’t see it that way. I had a month before I needed to start my editing projects for Evil Jester Press.
What to do, what to do?
I’d been talking a little bit with Mark Scioneaux over at Nightscape, a new small press that I was really impressed with, about submitting something, but I didn’t have anything to send in…yet. So I’d just write something, right?
It wasn’t that easy.
Here’s the thing: I’m not a fast writer. I don’t rush anything. I just work extremely long days until I’m happy with a project. It’s an obsession, and once I get into a project, it consumes me entirely. I don’t want anyone to think I just dashed Sunfall Manor off without a care in the world. In fact, I drove everyone around me crazy while I was writing it.
Thank God it only took 4 days.
That’s right. I wrote Sunfall Manor in 4 days. 4 days in which I got about 5 hours of sleep. 4 days in which I drank a month’s worth of coffee. 4 days in which people were convinced I was killing myself.
Was I right to do this? Probably not. If I’m honest with myself, I was damned wrong on every level. But, in my humble estimation, the story is right as a result. This was the product of my Earned Time. How I chose to spend it. What I wanted to do with it. I’ve never worked harder in a shorter period. I might never do it again. But this is what I wanted to do...this time.
I spent the next week rewriting and editing and polishing and doing all the things that a serious writer must do, but I was able to sleep and breathe easily. I wasn’t yelling every third word. I wasn’t impossible. Hell, I was at peace. My baby was alive. She was healthy. She needed a little of this and a little of that, but that wasn’t a problem. She was going to be okay. And I loved her. Still do.
Nightscape bought the novella less than a week after I sent it in. Eric Shapiro (Director of Rule of Three and Jack Ketchum’s Mail Order) and Darwin Green (Several projects in development) have already taken out a three year film option on the work, which has earned praise from HWA Lifetime Achievement Award-winning author Rick Hautala, Joe McKinney (who also penned the book’s introduction), Gene O’Neill, Jeremy C. Shipp, Tracy L. Carbone, Trent Zelazny, and David Bernstein.
Can you tell how proud I am? I hope so. But here's what I learned:
A worn hardwood floor in an old house…
The weathered face that speaks of a lifetime of hard work…
What we find in the cracks are often the most valuable treasures.
A Perspective on Haunting
Peter N. Dudar
When I was a kid, we used to play a game called “Ghost in the Graveyard.” It was a variation on hide-and-seek, where one of the hiders would be christened “the Ghost”, and upon being discovered by the seeker would be charged with hunting down all the other unfound hiders and chasing them back to “safety” (or home-base, or what have you). I remember being a child, and being absolutely frightened every time it was my turn to be the seeker, wondering just which other neighborhood kid would be the one to jump out and shout “Ghost in the Graveyard!” before chasing my chubby butt back to the front steps of my house. For me, it really elevated the game because it brought an edge of fear and suspense…even though I already knew that there WERE NO GHOSTS involved with the game. It was only hide-and-seek, after all.
Some of the best ghost stories I’ve read have no ghost whatsoever. There are two that stand out with distinction, in my opinion, and I think they deserve a bit of credit among ghost fans. These two tales fooled us all into thinking there are actual ghosts in them, and both have changed the course of supernatural literature enough to be considered cultural icons.
First published in 1820, Washington Irving’s THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW brandishes one of literature’s (and the horror genre’s) most beloved ghost: The Headless Horseman. Irving’s story centers around Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher from Connecticut that travels to Tarry Town, New York to become a school teacher. Crane is welcomed into the home of Baltus Van Tassel, one of the town’s more prominent citizens. Van Tassel has a lovely daughter named Katrina, and young Crane is smitten with her. The problem is that Sleepy Hollow’s town big-shot, Abraham (Brom Bones) Van Brunt, is also in love with her. The conflict between the two is not at all advantageous for Crane. Irving characterizes Crane to be tall, gangly, and a touch on the effeminate side. How easy it would be for Brom Bones to just bully the schoolteacher right back to New York. Instead, Brom chooses to share a bit of oral tradition by rehashing the tale of the Hessian soldier that was decapitated by a cannonball, and still roams the countryside nightly, looking for a new head. Instead of bullying Crane, Brom chooses to make sport of him in front of the lovely Katrina.
Where Irving cunningly elevates the tale to something greater than just a story is by allowing the story’s dénouement open to interpretation: Was Crane indeed chased out of town by the Headless Horseman or was it Bram Bones in disguise? We’re lead to believe it WAS Brom, but there’s that small part of us that want the legend to be true…we want there to be a ghostly horse-riding apparition, with his saber raised and ready to claim its next noggin (how he’d keep it attached, God only knows).
The great thing about LEGEND is that, in its nearly two hundred years of publication and being enjoyed by high school kids everywhere, it is STILL as popular and topical as ever. Even the name SLEEPY HOLLOW sounds frightening. We see most of the letters of the word HALLOWEEN in there. In Walt Disney’s cartoon version of the story, the Horseman hauls around a flaming Jack O’Lantern in place of his head, lending more to the whole Halloween vibe. And in the Tim Burton remake of the story (with plot stretched wafer-thin, but still captivating), we’re FINALLY offered the real ghost we’ve been waiting for.
The problem is we didn’t actually NEED the ghost to sell the story. Our minds did it all for us. Christopher Walken is delightful to watch, particularly for those who’ve never read the story, but it’s just more frightening that we never know for sure if Ichabod Crane (the schoolteacher, rather than Johnny Depp’s steam-punk investigator from NYC) escaped from Sleepy Hollow with his head still intact…or if he even survived at all.
On the other side of the coin is Shirley Jackson’s near-flawless 1959 novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. HAUNTING centers around a group of people commissioned to investigate some paranormal activity in the creepy old manse built by Hugh Crain (and you’ll please note the similarity between Crain and Crane). Luke Sanderson, the heir of Hill House, wants to be sure the house is safe, so he brings in Dr. Montague (a scientist), Theodora (a psychic), and Eleanor Vance (a sensitive character that may have had experienced paranormal activities in her youth). In penning her opus, Ms. Jackson never tilts her hand as she deals out the cards. We know there are supernatural phenomena going on within the walls of Hill House, but not once does she openly reveal that Crain’s ghost is, in fact, haunting the joint.
What we’re offered, instead, is an unparalleled supernatural experience. For it seems as if Eleanor Vance is being singled out in terms of the haunting. While the other characters experience minor occurrences, Eleanor is flat-out being almost possessed by the house. Jackson issues the line “Journeys end with lovers meeting,” which seems more a decree or an open invitation for Eleanor to find her completion by becoming a part of whatever is haunting her.
This leaves us wondering if the place was ever haunted at all, or if this is all taking place inside Eleanor’s head. By Jackson’s refusal to flat-out tell us that there IS a ghost, by her refusing to name the thing that inhabits Hill House, she’s forcing us to make our own interpretation, just as Irving did with his story. Jackson is relying on tone and atmosphere to sell her story rather than confirming the presence of the ghost.
This is the crux of the Anti-Ghost…if it IS indeed within the story, then WE are the author of it. This is the key to the human brain; it will fill in the blanks for us when we don’t have all the information we need. We jump to conclusions. We seek to explain the inexplicable and justify the questionable. And, for most of us fans of dark fiction, we know what we like.
Case in point: You’re lying in bed and your bedroom door suddenly swings open. You can’t see what caused it…you only experienced it through observation. Your brain begins to draw its own conclusions. Did a ghost just enter the room? If you’re afraid of the dark like I am, then your answer is probably, “Yes, and I’m scared.” Chances are that it’s not paranormal activity. When I see the bedroom door slip open, I know that either one of my cats just nudged it and came in to snuggle, or that I left the hall window open and a breeze came in. BUT…when you’re reading a horror novel (or watching a movie), and a door suddenly swings open, that’s a different story. Why? It’s the power of suggestion. It’s no different than feeling afraid of a ghost while playing a glorified version of hide-and-seek. It’s psychological. The door swung open BECAUSE something unearthly, something dark and sinister just entered the room.
I’m sure there are many other great examples of the Anti-Ghost, some done better than others. Here in our BLOGGING THE GHOST Tour, I felt that it did bear mentioning that there is a difference between ghosts and the supernatural, and that this topic does add a touch of illumination to the realm of ghostly hauntings.
After all…most of us are “seekers” at one time or another, and it really does help if we know what we’re after.
Peter N. Dudar's debut novel will be a free eBook at Amazon.com this weekend (September 15 and 16). For more information about the book, click here.
Now it's time for a brand new piece of fiction from Joe McKinney, a near-novelette sized ghost story that was too big to fit into this post. Click here to read it now.