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Archive for April, 2017

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As a lifelong lover and writer of horror and ghost stories, I’m sometimes asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” The answer to that question is quite long and likely to wander off into all kinds of strange and esoteric areas, so I won’t subject you to it here. (See how I got out of that one?)

A somewhat easier question that tends to come up in these conversations is, “Have you ever seen a ghost?”

My answer is, No. But I have heard one.

I was fourteen years old at the time, hanging out at my best friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon. My friend’s grandmother, who had been living with his family in the same house, had recently died. We were just sitting around in his bedroom, listening to records, when he reached over, turned down the record we’d been listening to, and told me something. Sometimes, he told me, he thought he could hear his grandmother walking around the house. My friend was a no-nonsense, scientific-minded guy (who is now, in fact, a scientist), not someone given to exaggeration or hallucinations, so what he’d just said impressed me.

A little while later, his mother came in to drive him somewhere on some kind of errand. They would be back soon, she assured me; would I be okay waiting in the house by myself? I tried to catch my friend’s eye, but he had already left the room, so I smiled at his mother and said yes, yes, I’d be fine. A minute later, I watched through the window as they both got in his mother’s white car and drove away.

I went back to listening to the album my friend and I had been playing. I turned it up loud, relying on the power of rock & roll to push back any negative thoughts or presences, and for a while, it worked just fine.

Soon, though, I couldn’t help but think about what my friend had said, and the thought came to me––I wonder what would happen if I turned the music down? After all, it was pretty loud and would probably cover up any other noises in the house. Why don’t I turn it down, just for a second, and see? I remember sitting there, staring at the volume knob on the stereo, trying to decide. Then I reached over and turned the music down.

Immediately I could hear the sound of someone walking around in the hallway, right outside the bedroom door.

Here’s the thing––it did not frighten me at all. If it had been a more mysterious noise, a series of spooky creaks, pops, or groans in the woodwork, or if it had been nighttime instead of a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, maybe then I would have felt frightened. But it was so clearly and unmistakably the sound of someone’s shoes walking across the linoleum floor (heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe..) that my first thought was that my friend and his mother had returned early, so I got up and went out in the hall to greet them.

Nobody. The sound had stopped. I was alone in the empty hallway with the sun streaming down on me through the high windows.

Still convinced that they’d returned, I started walking through the house, room by room, looking for them. No one in the living room, no one in the kitchen. When I looked into the carport, I saw what I already knew I’d see––the empty space where their white car had been, still empty.

The feeling of certainty being stripped away in layers from your mind is, I’d say, a physical sensation, raw and terrible. A slow-burning visceral shock like going blind, not over a period of years, but minutes or seconds––that’s what I felt, walking around my friend’s house. Even after I realized that what I’d heard was not them, I could not stop my body moving from room to room, looking for them. I remember moving faster and faster through their house, not so much to outrun whatever might be behind me, but because of the thought that if I moved fast enough, I might be able to erase myself, so that by the time whatever it was had caught up with me, there’d be nothing left.

I’m not sure how long it was before I finally heard the familiar sound of my friend and his mother entering through the front door. My friend came in and put on another record for us to listen to. I waited for a while, then told him what had happened. I remember that he simply listened, nodded once, and said, “Yeah.” Or maybe he just nodded and said nothing. I do know that we didn’t talk much about it. It felt like there was no need to talk about it. It was just a thing that had happened. And now it was over.

That’s my story.

There’s a remarkable scene in Algernon Blackwood’s story The Wendigo in which one character makes a brave attempt to snuff out the supernatural hysteria that’s building among the other characters by offering rational explanations for all the strange and frightening things they’ve been experiencing. It’s a terrific scene, first because of it’s realism. (When confronted by the unexplainable, that’s what humans really do––try to explain it.)

But what’s strongest about this scene is how starkly it depicts two separate realities. While the character’s reasoning is sound, and his logic good, the other characters (as well as we, the readers) can’t deny the feeling that what he’s saying ultimately makes no difference. By engaging in scientific logic, he has clumsily and tragically missed the point.

So, allow me to offer a few rational explanations of my own story:

(1) What I heard was actually some other household noise that I mistook for footsteps.
Possible. But very hard to believe. What I heard was clearly the sound of human footsteps––shoe-leather hitting linoleum, heel-toe, heel-toe––crossing the hallway, clearly moving from one place to another.

(2) What I heard was in fact human footsteps, but of someone else who entered the house. Again, possible, but not likely. Remember, I investigated immediately upon hearing the sound, then searched the house, and found no one. Plus, my friend later confirmed that there was no one else in the house with me at the time.

(3) My friend and his mother played a trick on me by pretending to leave and then circling back around to sneak into the house and frighten me. Extremely unlikely––my friend’s mother was not the kind of woman who’d conspire with her son on a practical joke. And my friend was not the type who’d play a joke like that and then never gloat about it. (Plus, remember, I investigated immediately and found no one.)

(4) I can’t think of a fourth rational explanation.

So what are we left with? Are we forced to conclude that what I heard was, in fact, the ghost of my friend’s grandmother?

Of course not. What we are left with is, I believe, potentially much more frightening than that. And that is the realization that we do not understand the world we live in. That we do not know what we think we know.

What does that mean for us as writers? I think it means that what can make our work truly powerful is not simply how well we write about the unknown, but how well we write about what it’s like to experience the unknown, that split second that feels like an eternity when we step off the edge of the cliff and feel like we might either fall or fly.

 

 

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