The midnight hour is at hand. Outside, the wind is howling through the trees, sending the dying leaves of autumn into a fiery cyclone of color. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and just as that creepy old granfather clock begins to chime the witching hour, the sky begins to light up with piercing strobes that turn the darkness into daytime. And somewhere, very close by, we hear the rattle of chains, and the moans and wails of something cold and sinister, and no longer living.
Welcome to our final installment of BLOGGING THE GHOST. If you’ve missed out on the earlier entries, you can go back and visit the CRYPT OF INSANITY to hear our podcast at Dark Discussions, you can view our DEATH CERTIFICATE from Week 1, and you can examine our LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT from Week 2. And once you feel brave enough, then you, our DEAREST LIVING FRIENDS, may proceed into the darkness with us. The spirits are calling. We think you will like what they have to say.
From Pete Giglio
Peter Giglio Interviews Sim Saunders, Spirit-world Medium
Today I have the honor of chatting with Sim Saunders, which is really cool. You see, Sim is a medium, and as someone who’s had a lifelong fascination with all things ethereal, I consider myself very privileged to be granted this interview.
Sim, in addition to being a super-cool spirit medium, is also the wife of Craig Saunders, who many of you know as a writer of fantastic fiction, including a number of horror stories and novels.
Greetings, Sim, and thanks for agreeing to this discussion.
Hi Peter, it’s my pleasure. Very nice to kind of meet you.
I mentioned your husband, who writes paranormal horror from time to time. Does he let you read these works? Do you find yourself correcting him often?
I read everything Craig writes before he sends it off anywhere. Although, I’m a big scaredy-cat and I can only read his stuff during light hours or I won’t be able to sleep. I’m still waiting for him to write me a fluffy love story that I can read before bed, a love story that doesn’t involve the characters being dead or half dead or something gruesome like that. As for correcting…only minor things – these days his work is fairly polished at first draft. Not that I’m biased or anything, but he is a pretty good writer these days.
I know many mediums use devices such as Tarot cards and Crystal balls. Forgive my ignorance, because there is much I don’t know. What are your views on these tools? Do you use them?
I have both Tarot cards and a Crystal ball. Crystals have all sorts of different properties so some people use them for healing, etc. Personally I’ve used it as a tool to help focus while delivering messages in the past. Tarot cards are used to give readings on a psychic link. You learn what all the cards mean and you interpret the cards to give individual readings. To do this you have to develop your psychic abilities. I’m too lazy for that, and luckily for me dead people talk to me so I don’t have to worry about it. When I try to do a Tarot reading I usually turn one card over and then a spirit person appears next to me and I can just chat to them instead!
Tell us about the first time you saw a dead person.
Well there was a spirit little girl that I used to play with as a child. Everyone thought she was a pretend friend, and they all acted like they could see her, too, so I thought it was all normal. One day I went running into our house and I saw an old lady standing there. I asked my Mum who she was, and she looked at me as if I was mad (a look I have got used to over the years). That’s when I realized that not everyone could see them and I was quite lucky/unique/strange.
Have you ever had a frightening experience with a spirit?
Only recently I’ve had two experiences that spooked me. I was helping to get rid of a poltergeist, and I phoned the girl who had the uninvited house guest to tell her how this was going to happen. The phone line went dead and there was this rough sounding woman’s voice down the phone—that unfortunately I couldn’t quite understand. It was something straight out of a cheesy horror film. It’s not every day a poltergeist talks to you down the phone. It’s a bit unnerving.
The second one was during some group work at my local spiritualist church. A male spirit took over my voice (known as channeling) to tell us that there was a young girl who had hanged herself that was stuck and needed help to cross. So we did a rescue to pass her over to her friends and family in spirit. It frightened the life out of me at the time, but afterwards I thought, actually that was really cool.
There are those who believe in ghosts and those who don’t. But I think that people, by and large, want to believe, even if they’re not willing to openly admit it. What do you have to say to those people?
I think most people know there is more to life than our day to day. When I talk to people about it they often have a story of their own, like a coincidence that seems too weird or a strange experience that they can’t explain. To me it’s the only thing that makes sense. I can’t believe in anything that I can’t prove. Over the years I have experienced so much that I don’t doubt the existence of spirit for one second. If people are interested they should go to their local spiritualist church and keep an open mind. I can’t speak for other churches, but ours is nothing like a traditional church. For example we don’t just sing hymns—Abba is in our book of songs! They are usually friendly places and they are open-minded, which is key for me.
What, in your opinion, makes a person a conduit to the spirit world?
I think anyone can be used as a medium to communicate with a spirit. You just have to have some training and learn how to work with your guides. You also need to be in the right frame of mind and have time and space to work with spirit.
What are your thoughts on paranormal books and movies in general? Who’s getting it right? Who’s getting it wrong?
I don’t really read that genre apart from that Craig Saunders (he is quite a talented chap you know). Of course he has listened to all my experiences over the years – well, I say listen; he nods his head in the right places, so a lot of Love of the Dead rings true. But I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than that.
What is the most frequent misconception you run into regarding what you do?
Most religious people from traditional churches think I am engaged in the Devil’s work, so that’s nice. The other one is that people think it’s fortune telling – oh if I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked for the lottery numbers. But my work is about giving evidence to prove there is survival after death, not that: on the second Tuesday of March you will meet a tall dark stranger and his name will be Dave.
I’m sure that lots of people think I’m a real loon, but I feel honored to work with spirits and it’s so rewarding to be able to pass on messages to people from their loved ones who have passed on.
Once again, Sim, thanks for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you.
Thank you. Anytime. I could talk about this stuff until the cows come home (weird British expression?). Now where is that Craig? I could do with a cup of tea…
From Peter N. Dudar
Copyright 2012- Peter N. Dudar
“Mr. Danvers, I’m surprised to see you again.”
Sister Margaret Willis slid out from behind her desk and closed the distance between herself and the man entering her office. It had been nearly five years since Theodore Danvers had last set foot in this room, had last called on her for her official duty as the church’s “bereavement counselor” after his son Timothy passed away. Danvers was only twenty-seven at the time of the car accident. Now, here he was at thirty-one going on seventy. Theodore Danvers looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks; his hair prematurely graying and disheveled, the unkempt growth of whiskers on his cheeks, and the bags under his eyes suggested that he’d all but given up on living. And sadly, this wasn’t atypical for a man who’d lost his child in an accident, and then was abandoned by his wife who tried to drown him in a sea of blame and resentment before divorcing him directly afterward.
Sister Margaret extended her arms to embrace him, but instead caught him as he collapsed into her embrace. She thought at first that she might drop him, and was surprised at just how light he felt in her grasp. Danvers had lost weight; another sign of giving up hope. She gave his breath a cursory sniff, and was relieved when she detected no trace of alcohol.
“Mr. Danvers? Ted, are you okay?”
The man trembled and wept in her arms. His body shook and convulsed as he sobbed and gasped for breath. Sister Margaret held him tight, let him ride out the storm that raged inside until it ebbed to a quiet rainfall. Eventually, even that subsided and Danvers allowed himself to be led to the chair that sat directly across from her desk.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered as he withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket. He blew his nose and wiped the tears off the puffed-out skin of his cheeks. “I didn’t know anybody else I could talk to…anyone I could trust. I have nobody left.”
Sister Margaret sat down behind her desk. She reached out across the desk and gently grasped his hands, enveloping his shaking digits and easing them down until they rested on the desktop. For the moment, Danvers couldn’t raise his eyes to meet her own, but that would come in time. As a grief counselor, and one that had been practicing probably since before Danvers was even born, she knew what to look for, and how to get him to eventually open up.
After all, the two of them had gone through this dance before, just after the accident took his son’s life.
Danvers sniffed again, and then took a deep breath. He exhaled, and then finally looked up at her.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” he repeated.
“It’s okay, my son. I’ve seen many parents over the years that have had trouble coping after losing a child. It’s the most awful thing for a parent to outlive their children. It goes against the nature of life that God has intended for us as humans. And after Trish decided to move on, you must be feeling terribly lonely as well.”
Ted Danvers withdrew his hands from her grasp and covered his eyes, and began to weep again.
“That’s the thing…” he sputtered as his body convulsed with sobs. “I’m never alone! Timmy’s come home, and I can’t stop seeing him!” After a moment, he withdrew his hands from his face, and his tired, bloodshot eyes gazed into hers, in a cold, dead stare that passed into forever.
“Timmy’s changing,” he whispered in a cold, confidential tone. “He’s becoming terrible.”
The five-year-old version of Timothy Danvers was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, out on the stretch of route #196 where the exit ramp off route #295 merged into the east-bound lane heading into Topsham. Ted Danvers had been driving the boy home from a play-date that Saturday afternoon, and made the snap decision of swinging by the grocery store to grab some snacks and a six-pack for the football game the following evening rather than stopping at the light and turning left toward home. The other vehicle, an industrial-sized logging truck, had decided to put the pedal down and blow through the yellow light rather than try to bring the rig to a complete stop on such short notice. Danvers gave a cursory glance before likewise stomping on the pedal and making his turn, and sending his only child into the afterlife.
Somebody had put together a roadside memorial where Danvers’s sky-blue Toyota got creamed by the tons of 18-wheeler that collided with it before pushing it into the guard rails at the side of the road. The memorial went up overnight, neither of Timothy’s parents knowing who’d put together the little wooden cross adorned with red roses and placed it where Timothy Danvers drew his finally breaths before succumbing to internal injuries. By the time Timmy’s body was lowered into the ground and covered with dirt, the memorial had grown into a shrine. People had visited and had left flowers and photographs and mementos honoring a little boy that loved to smile and play and make people laugh.
The more the shrine grew, the more Trish Danvers hated her husband for having the accident. On the one-year anniversary of Timothy’s death, Trish finally found the nerve to tell Ted Danvers that she’d wished he died instead. She left him the very next day. Which was good because Ted already hated himself enough for two, and hated her reminding him with her accusatory silence that everything was his fault.
“I decided to take down the roadside memorial,” Ted started. “I just showed up one day to where I had the accident and took it all down. I didn’t know what else to do. Every time I drove by it, it made me sick to my stomach. It was killing me. Seeing it was a hint of accusation from the world at what I’d done.”
“How did that make you feel?” Sister Margaret sat across from him, never taking her eyes off him, even though she’d pulled out a legal-pad and began jotting down notes.
“I felt angry,” he replied. “I didn’t just take it down…I destroyed it. I’d been building up all this anger inside, and it finally had to come out of me. I kicked down the cross with Timmy’s name on it and stomped on it until it splintered into a million little pieces. I ripped up old photos that had been stapled onto the wood…shredded them and tossed them into the wind. Trish’s folks had collected his stuffed Teddy bear, somehow snuck it out of our house after the funeral, and left it there at his memorial. Can you believe that? I picked up the bear and started punching it. Just freakin’ whaled on it right there at the side of the road, with other cars passing me by. After a while, people began to rubberneck and watch me, and traffic began to back up. I didn’t care. I beat on that freakin’ stuffed bear until its stuffing began to ooze out.”
“And then what happened?”
“A police car was dispatched to see what was creating the traffic jam. The line of cars on Route #196 parted like the Red Sea, and a pair of cops from the Topsham police department paid me a visit. They were pretty understanding, all things considered. The one guy, the senior of the two, politely told me that if I’d worked out all my frustration, I was free to clean up the mess and move on…otherwise they’d have to cuff me and I’d be appearing before the judge before the afternoon was over.”
“Are you sorry you did it?”
Ted looked down at his lap, where his folded hands had come to rest.
“Yes, but only because that was when Timmy first came home.”
Ted Danvers came home after the memorial-smashing incident feeling better than he’d had in a long time. Once the cops showed up, he’d managed to compose himself, and discovered that a great deal of the guilt and rage that had eclipsed his life had now given way to some sunshine and light. He’d picked up all the remnants of the memorial, everything he’d trashed and torn to shreds, and dropped them in the trunk of his new vehicle. Afterward, he drove to the town landfill and threw everything away. Everything, except for the Teddy bear. He clutched the bear in his hands, tried to let it go and drop it into the giant metal hopper, but couldn’t. The damn thing still held the scent of his dead son. He held the toy up to his face and sniffed long and hard, and could detect the odor of Timmy’s body oils, and the feint scent of the shampoo that his mother used to clean his hair. Smelling these scents brought tears to his eyes, and he began to weep openly.
“I can’t keep doing this,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, son, but I have to let you go.”
Ted Danvers dropped the bear into the hopper. He watched as the toy bounced off the cold metal walls of the hopper, and then settled lifelessly against the pile of trash bags and debris. The bear sat looking up at him. Cold, white stuffing oozed out of the tears and rips in the bear’s skin. It made Ted think of the last time he saw his son, strapped into his booster seat (the one Trish had picked out because it was supposed to be the safest in the event of an accident), slowly hemorrhaging both internally and externally. Thank God the boy had been unconscious as his life slipped away…
He saw his child out of the corner of his eye. A quick blur within his peripheral vision as Ted made his way through the kitchen door and dropped his car keys on the counter. It happened so fast that he stopped in his tracks and craned his head toward the door to the living room where the blur had fled. When his gaze found nothing, Ted followed the blur into the living room.
“So what happened next?” Sister Margaret had been hanging on his every word. She could tell by the clarity of his voice and the way his eyes kept trying to meet hers that he believed every word he was saying. And why not? Why would Ted Danvers make the effort to drive way out here to St. Joseph’s Cathedral and call on her, just to regale her with some crazy ghost story about his late son? Maybe he was slowly going crazy. Maybe the wall of isolation he’d built around himself was finally getting to him, and he was ready to tear it down.
What made all the difference in the world (and she noted this on her legal pad) was that he wanted the ghostly appearance of his child to stop. While most parents of departed children would be thrilled at having the spirit of their child nearby, where they might perhaps be in contact with it, be able to communicate with it, Danvers didn’t. Ted was finally ready to let go and move on, but according to his story, something from beyond was trying to hold him back.
“I walked into the living room, and was met by the coldest chill I’d ever felt. It felt invasive…kind of like something was trying to penetrate my skin and freeze up everything inside of me. I walked into the room and scanned all around, but I saw nothing. No sign of life at all. I found myself walking through the whole house, feeling certain that something was in there with me…some other presence that I just couldn’t see. I knew it was Timmy. I could feel it with the same certainty that I knew my own name, or that one plus one equals two. I went through that whole goddamn house, feeling that same blast of cold chill in every room. Finally, when I got to his old bedroom, I saw it.”
“You saw your son?”
“I saw the Teddy bear. The one that I had just gotten rid of at the dump. It was sitting on Timmy’s bed, with its blank stare gazing back at me. Beside it was two pieces of wood, fastened together to form a little wooden cross, just like the one at Timmy’s roadside memorial.”
Ted Danvers rushed into the room and picked up the bear. He grasped it tight, bringing it up to his face, and began to cry. He sobbed until his body hitched and gasped for breath. After a few minutes, he pulled away his face and looked back at the bear. His pupils fixed upon it as he tried to decipher how it had gotten here. It was as he stared at the toy that the shape in his peripheral vision reappeared.
Timmy was in the room with him.
He wanted to turn and look at the boy, wanted to see the phantom of his late son, but he couldn’t. For starters, he knew that if he tried to look directly at him, his son would disappear, just evaporate like steam from a teakettle into the cold ethereal of the beyond. Ted wasn’t ready for that. Instead, he continued to stare at the Teddy bear, and watched his child’s ghost out of the corner of his eye.
“I’m so sorry, Timmy,” he whispered.
The ghost merely sat there, watching. Because he couldn’t turn his head, Ted’s eyes couldn’t focus on the face his son made, couldn’t detect any kind of emotion from it. It hovered in the corner of the bedroom, waiting.
“It was an accident,” Ted continued. “It should have been me that died. I would do anything to take your place, but I can’t.”
The ghost waited.
“I can’t go on like this…I have to let you go. I want you to move on. I want you to move on and be at peace…”
The ghost screamed, and he could hear his son’s voice, like a needle piercing his eardrums and trying to stab into his brain. Ted dropped the toy bear onto the ground and raised his hands up to his ears to cover them. He swung his head around to face his son, and, just like he knew it would, the ghost vanished before Ted Danvers could look upon his dead child.
“I started using the bear as my conduit to communicate with my son,” he said. “I could always tell when Timmy was there with me. The room would go ice-cold. The curtains would ruffle and sway when he passed by. Timmy would have been turning ten this September, but he still whispers to me in the voice of a five-year-old. I suppose ghosts don’t age or celebrate birthdays. They just stay there where they are…like prisoners or something. When he was there with me, all I had to do was lift up the bear and stare into its eyes, and I could see my son’s shape in my peripheral vision. At first he was docile, as if maybe he was sad and confused. I guess I can’t blame him for that. But after a while, it was like he was growing restless or angry, like he wanted something from me and just couldn’t communicate what it was he wanted.”
Sister Margaret stopped scribbling on her pad for a moment and looked at him.
“What do you think he wanted?”
“I have no idea. I’d apologized to him for the accident. I told him I wanted him to be at peace…told him I wanted to move on. But now that I’d found this way to communicate with him, it was like he wanted it all the time. It was like he wouldn’t let me be. I was beginning to lose sleep at night. He’d enter my bedroom when I was asleep, and find ways to wake me up. One night, he knocked over a glass of water I’d left on my nightstand. It shattered against the wall and the floor, and I bolted upright. Timmy had brought the bear into my bedroom, and had left it on my pillow right beside me. I turned on the bedroom light and stared into the bear’s eyes, and saw my son in my peripheral vision as he began to tear my bedroom apart, throwing my clothes on the floor and knocking pictures off the bedroom walls in this fit of rage that continued to grow inside him.”
“Ted, you said this all began right after you destroyed the roadside memorial. Have you, perhaps, thought of putting up a new memorial? Maybe your son is angry with you because you destroyed his shrine. Maybe he’s angry because you’re trying to destroy your memories of him.”
Ted sighed and sat back in his seat.
“I did think of that. That was one of the first things I did. I drove back out to the site of the accident and put up a new shrine. Timmy was there when I went downstairs to my workshop and built a new cross to put up for him. I painted the new one white, and stenciled his name in gold letters across the horizontal bar. I went back and found some old photographs of him, and placed them in a new photo album, which I also left at the shrine. I put up flowers and everything. By the time was done, the shrine was bigger and better than before.”
“Did you return the Teddy bear?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I was using it to communicate with him. I wanted to see if maybe he was pleased with what I’d done. I was waiting to find out if this all would bring him peace.”
“Was he pleased?”
“No. Things got much, much worse. He wasn’t pleased at all.”
“What happened next?”
“I got angry with him. I was so pissed that he still wouldn’t leave me alone that I destroyed the Teddy bear.”
Sister Margaret gasped out loud. “You destroyed it?”
“I was angry. I lit the bear on fire and dropped it in the bathtub. Timmy was with me as the damn thing burned down to ashes. The whole time he shrieked and beat his hands against the bathroom walls. It was absolute agony for me. I’d almost preferred watching my son die again rather than going through that awful tantrum.”
“What happened after that?”
“After that, I didn’t need the Teddy bear to see my son anymore. After that, I began seeing him all the time. I could see him as plainly as I’m looking at you right now. After that, he began to change…”
The little boy that was Ted Danvers’s son began to turn sour and rot. Somewhere in Hillside Cemetery was a child-sized coffin with the real remains of Timothy Danvers. And inside that coffin was a tiny body, still well preserved with chemicals, and yet still decaying. Perhaps the coffin had ruptured, had allowed in air and dirt and moisture and insects. Perhaps one or more of those elements combined to make his corpse begin to fester.
It was as if Timmy’s ghost was decaying along with it.
The first time Ted had witnessed the ghost (not in his peripheral vision, but right in plain sight) was the morning after the bear-burning incident. Ted had raided the liquor cabinet and drank until his body could no longer tolerate, and he simply slumped down on the kitchen floor and passed out.
When he awoke, Timmy was there waiting for him.
The phantom sat before him on the kitchen floor. Its skin was almost translucent, allowing beams of sunlight from the kitchen window to pass right through it. Only, as the sunbeams passed through, they seemed to collect the ice-cold chill that radiated from the boy, forcing droplets of condensation to form on Ted’s skin. Ted wiped the droplets away, and was repulsed to feel how sticky they were, as if he was somehow coated in ectoplasm while he slept.
“Please, please go away. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
The ghost scowled, and pushed an object toward him on the cold tiles of the kitchen floor.
It was a butcher’s knife.
“No…no, I’m not going to kill myself!”
The ghost’s scowl turned to rage. Its hand shot down and tried to pick up the knife. As it did, Ted’s hands shot out and tried to grab his son’s throat. He’d meant to strangle his son, choke the life out of it, but his hands, instead, passed right through his son’s neck. They pushed out through the back side, and the ectoplasmic residue coated Ted’s skin and turned to ice. The ghost lurched backward in fear, and then raced off through the house, shrieking and wailing in its dead five-year-old voice.
“It’s been this way for weeks,” Ted confessed. “My son wants me to die, too. That’s what it wanted all along. I should have died in the accident along with him. Now he won’t leave me alone.”
Sister Margaret listened quietly. She’d tried not to be judgmental, but it seemed as if perhaps Ted Danvers had gone off the deep end. Her job here at the church was as a bereavement therapist…but she was not a doctor of psychology, not clinically licensed to prescribe medication or make psychiatric assessments.
“Mr. Danvers…Ted,” she began. “I think perhaps you should consider an evalutation.”
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” Ted sighed. “I’m not crazy, Sister. I can prove it.”
“You’ve been through an awful lot since the accident.”
Ted stood up. He pulled his shirt out from where it had been tucked inside his jeans and fished out an object. It wasn’t clear at first what it was, so she waited.
“Timmy is here with us. Right now! All you have to do to see him is hold this up and stare at it. You’ll see him out of the corner of your eyes.”
Ted handed over the remains of the Teddy bear. It was now a charred lump of fuzz and material that had somehow melded together under the heat of the flames. Ted tried to pass the bear along to her, and as he did, she felt the ice-cold chill of something else in the room with them.
Sister Margaret took the toy from Ted’s hands. Her own hands trembled as she held the bear out in front of her face.
She began to cry as the ghost stared her down. It no longer looked human.
Sister Margaret Willis never saw Ted Danvers pull the pistol from his pocket, hold the weapon to his head and pull the trigger. She only saw the bear, and the blinding flash of light behind it as the gun went off. There was a deafening POP, making her jump in her chair, and the immediate burn of gunpowder as Ted’s lifeless body fell to the floor. Her gaze never left the bear, nor the phantom child in the corner of her eye. She wept as the second ghost came into focus and joined him.
From Joe McKinney
Ghost Stories: A Panel Discussion Moderated by Joe McKinney
I’ve read, and watched, a ton of horror. I got hooked on the stuff in my early teens and haven’t regretted my addiction since. But for all the horror I’ve consumed, I can truly say the only type of horror that has ever truly scared me is the ghost story. Yes, I’ve found writers and filmmakers who have thrilled me. I’ve found plenty of those. More than a few of them, for a variety of reasons, have managed to get my pulse racing. A few of them have even managed to shape the creative and emotional range of the man I am today. But the only stories that have ever caused me to put the book down and glance over my shoulder, or wonder what that noise was, are ghost stories.
I suspect this is so because ghosts are the one and only type of horror trope that are inherently relevant. The idea that something exists beyond this world, that we continue on beyond death is, for me anyway, both terrifying and profoundly reassuring. It scares me because it implies a permanence of the soul and of the intellect that I have yet to adequately explore, even at this midway point in my life. Yet it is potential for that permanence that at the same time makes the ghost such a reassuring presence in our folk tales and our literature.
The trouble is the ghost is abomination of that permanence. It is a being, a presence, an intellect, whatever, that is denied both life and the promise of a satisfying existence beyond life. So I think we feel terrified of ghosts both because they remind us that our deaths are imminent and because our sense of empathy makes us imagine ourselves in that same kind of half-life.
Needless to say, I find ghosts a complex problem. Every time I speak of them I find myself have to use compound sentences to encompass divergent meanings and possibilities. They are problem so frustrating, so terrifying, and yet so full of hope, that I felt it necessary to call upon some of horrors leading authors and editors to help me explain it.
The logical place to start, I think, is with the past masters. Most of us have developed our sense of what a ghost is, and for that matter why they’re scary, from the short stories and books we’ve read, and also from the films we’ve seen. So let’s find out which films and which stories the experts say get it just right.
From Michael Rowe:
The most perfect ghost story, to me, is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Empty House.” In addition to all the classic elements–an old house, unsuspecting visitors, sudden apparitions–it has something that Blackwood does better than almost anyone else in the genre–an ability to write almost cinematically, using liberal amounts of literal darkness. In this story, the ghosts literally appear out of the dark, and vanish into it again, leaving the dark in their wake. To my mind, light, literal or metaphorical, is an enemy of ghost stories. More than any other revenant or monster, ghosts thrive on mystery and darkness. Ghosts don’t always need to be explained, or have their backgrounds established. The can just be. I realize how completely old-fashioned that is, but ghost are old-fashioned too.
From Steve Rasnic Tem:
The key element of the greatest ghost stories is that they can describe some common household items and convince you that there is an actual, breathing invisible presence there. Study how Ramsey Campbell handles details. Or the grandmaster of the ghost story MR James. What he does with bed sheets in “Oh whistle…” is astonishing.
From Marge Simon:
Ghost stories generally don’t appeal to me. However, I do appreciate different takes on ghosts, as in Robert Dunbar’s touchingly amusing “High Rise” (from MONSTERS & MARTYRS). The first sentence is a winner: “The other ghosts didn’t like her.” I was hooked! The premise that ghosts actually have their own paranormal society and set of mores is refreshing. As you’d expect from Dunbar’s stories, this one has a most unique ending.
What I loved most about “High Rise” was that the ghost is just as well defined as is the living protagonist. The fun part is that the ghost is a nymphomaniac, and her desires are so strong, they manifest on living males –one in particular, who is the other key character. Perhaps if TOPPER (Thorne Smith) were darkly humorous, it would also fit alongside of “High Rise.” Again, a lot depends on characterization.
In sharp contract to this, I’m currently absorbed in reading URN & WILLOW by Scott Thomas, a collection of ghost stories told in the charming vernacular of early 1800s. Yes, these are all ghost stories, but the writing is so good, I don’t mind. So what makes me want to read a ghost tale? Something different, something that isn’t terror for terror’s sake, that’s what!
From Lisa Morton:
I was just reading a collection of ghost stories by Edith Wharton, and I found Wharton’s own preface to the collection to be frankly somewhat short-sighted: She suggested that not only would ghost stories be “gradually atrophied by those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema”, but she also seemed to believe that ghost stories could only be truly appreciated by those in cooler northern climates. I want to believe that Wharton confused the Gothic tale – which is really European – with the ghost story, which is universal, found in all times and all cultures. Ghosts represent not just our hope that some part of us will survive after death, but also our fear that it will be the WORST part, the part driven by rage or grief. Great ghost stories take those global, timeless desires and fears and place them in a contemporary cultural context that allows the modern reader to most completely relate and experience these primeval feelings. As long as we have any uncertainty about what happens after we die, we’ll have ghost stories.
From Ed Kurtz:
The most frightening movie experience I’ve ever had was watching Robert Wise’s 1961 ghost story, The Haunting, at the Paramount in Austin, Texas. Retroactively rated G by the MPAA, Wise’s film employs the inherent human dread of the unknown and the unseen to raise the audience’s most primitive hackles, and this is precisely what makes a good—or in this case, great—ghost story work. Literature-wise, Peter Straub’s superb Ghost Story builds considerably on this tactic, reminding us that ghosts were once us, and now something inconceivable to the living mind. And worse: possibly our own terrible fate just down the road.
But How Do Ghost Stories Make Us Feel?
I’ve already said that a good ghost story can scare me silly, but is that all they do? Somehow, I don’t think so. Lovecraft is famous for pointing out that the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown, and I certainly think he’s right about that. But fear, simply by being the oldest and strongest of our emotions, doesn’t necessarily override or dominate all the others. Our emotional landscape is a tangled tapestry of love and hate and jealousy and empathy and kindness and of rage. In life, we are capable of abasing ourselves to the worst kinds of depravity, yet also of achieving the greatest heights of love and sacrifice. Should we expect any less of death?
From RJ Sevin:
A good ghost story needs to accomplish two things:
1.) Create a sense of unease
A great ghost story makes you uneasy in the middle of the night, when you’re sitting alone in front of your computer and something clicks or clatters at the other end of your house. You get up and look around and remind yourself that you don’t believe in ghosts.
A great ghost story turns you into a child.
2.) Tell us something about ourselves
Most of us don’t believe in ghosts. We enjoy ghost stories for the visceral thrill but derive no lingering superstitious tingle from them. Because of this, we want something more from our ghosts than a mere BOO!… however well crafted. A great ghost story tells us something about ourselves. It shows us that a house is only as haunted as the people inside it.
If it’s well crafted, a ghost story can get away with succeeding in only one of these two areas, but the great ghost story accomplishes both.
From Ellen Datlow:
Subtlety–A great ghost story creeps up on the reader and doesn’t hit her over the head. There are two kinds of ghost stories: the heartbreakers and the chillers. The best story of any kind (in my opinion) is the one that lingers, the ones you can’t get out of your mind because they’ve made so strong an impression on you.
From Judy Comeau:
I believe atmosphere is most essential to any effective ghost story, whether supernatural or psychological. I don’t mean clanking chains or moaning apparitions, but rather an overarching sense of dread, a feeling of unseen horrors lurking everywhere just beyond perception. I love the delicious suspense of following a cherished character into the swirling depths of mortal terror, and without a proper sense of atmosphere, suspense cannot be sustained. Emotionally vulnerable characters placed in settings of atmospheric dread have always conjured the most terrifying and memorable ghostly tales, I think.
From Del Howison:
Like John Huston said, “I don’t believe in them but they scare me.” The sense of unease and unknowing that accompanies them is unnerving. It is not so much that they are there. It’s the question of Why? Are they here for me?
From Rick Hautala:
A couple of things spring to mind … First and foremost, keep the “unknown,” unknown. Too much explanation ruins a good ghost story. Keep it eerie .. elusive … I think the best ghost stories happen when the reader only catches glimpses the ghost(s) in the corner of their eye … (Think HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES.) And the reason the ghost is lingering behind in the land of the living has to be tied in with the very real world concerns of the protagonist … a mirror of what they’re dealing with Imagine HAMLET with the ghost of Hamlet’s father …. ” nuff said.
From Michael Collings:
When I think about effective ghost stories, I concentrate on three elements:
Ghosts: It would seem that this element should go without saying. After all, we’re talking about “ghost” stories. The word itself comes from an ancient root meaning “horrible” or “frightful”; more recently (that is, a millennium or so ago), it took on overtones of “spirit” or “breath.” Now, we almost automatically think of a ghost as simply the spirit of the dead, whether frightening or not.
But just as with so many other monsters in horror, there are ghosts and there are ghosts. Synonyms for the word include apparition, daemon, haunt, phantasm, phantom, poltergeist, revenant, shade, specter, spook, wraith, and others. Each of these differs subtly from the others, both in connotation and in denotation, and a successful ghost story clearly identifies which tradition is being followed…and follows it. Ghosts are not omnipotent; they cannot simply do anything the writer wishes. An apparition may not act as if it were a specter.
So an effective ghost story incorporates a tradition, enhancing and expanding it when needed but ultimately remaining true to it. Because there are so many approaches to ghosts, there are an equal number of effective ways of treating them, from sheerly horrific to pratfallingly comedic (assuming a ghost can perform a pratfall). Writers may exploit the opportunities; and when they do so creatively, consistently, and purposefully, the story benefits.
Atmosphere: Effective ghost stories gain almost as much from the proper atmosphere as from the ghost itself. I am not talking necessarily about haunted mansions, web-cloaked castles, or other low-budget props escaped from Hollywood B-films, although they might be made highly effective in the hands of a strong writer.
I am thinking more in terms of atmosphere as almost a character. The best example I can think of is not from a ghost story but rather from a literary classic. The moor in Wuthering Heights is almost more important than the characters themselves, since it provides the backdrop, the emotional surroundings that mold the characters.
In ghost stories, atmosphere is more than the sum total of successive adjectives and adverbs. Just as dropping the word eldritch into every other paragraph does not make for an effective piece of Lovecraftian horror, so dropping ghost-related words does not create a ghost story.
Instead, the atmosphere develops through every detail of the surroundings, as in Peter N. Dudar’s A Requiem for Dead Flies, in which each thing readers encounter ultimately goes toward building the tone, the feeling, and almost smothering quality that characterizes the book.
Careful, incremental, organic creation of a context in which the ghost appears, then, can be as essential as the ghost itself.
Suggestivity and ambiguity: If a ghost appears to a large group of people in the first paragraphs of a story, unambiguously establishes itself as the spirit of one dead, and announces its intentions and desires, there is no story. If, on the other hand, a ghost appears to one or two terrified witnesses in the opening scene, speaks so elliptically that neither can truly say whether it is real or not, then disappears for much of the story, reappearing only once to speak to a character who may or may not be wholly sane, then there is the potential for a story…or a play, such as Hamlet.
If readers know from the onset that there is a ghost, much of the suspense and tension needed simply dissipates. If readers are not certain until the final pages—and perhaps not even then—that the ghost is ‘real,’ the story becomes more compelling, more disturbing, more effective.
In filmic terms, showing the spook in the opening frames would be disastrous; suggesting that something eerie is present through hints and possibilities keeps the audience interested and focused. This is the ultimate purpose of ubiquitous cold spots, slamming doors or windows, mysteriously motile objects, unaccountable sounds from attics and basements…but not specific appearances, at least until toward the end.
Taken together, these elements work toward an effective ghost story. They can’t be treated as programmatic, of course; but when used thoughtfully and creatively, the usually enhance the final product.
From Matt Cardin:
Great ghost stories work when they unite authentic literary artistry with an authentic sense of the profound metaphysical and psychological stakes involved in the question of supernatural reality and the survival of consciousness beyond physical existence. They work when they generate for the reader a sense that everyday material reality is surrounded by, and only thinly separated from, a shadowy otherworld of spirits, entities, or intelligences. And they work when they elicit a true frisson, a true experience of horripilation, and a sense of awe or dark exhilaration at the very prospect of these things. So obviously, their success hinges to a huge extent on how well and how deeply the author himself or herself actually feels and envisions these things.
From Jeani Rector:
Of all the story sub-genres I receive at The Horror Zine, ghost stories are my personal favorites. Ghost stories are considered to be classics. Classic fiction is timeless because it doesn’t follow trends and therefore never goes out of style.
The Great Unknown. Of all the places that mankind has successfully explored, death is not one of them. No one has ever come back from the dead to tell us about it or to give us a map. That means we speculate.
And we are afraid because we know we must eventually die, so add fear to speculation and you have a great foundation for a story. Readers love to stand at the edge of the abyss and peek over the cliff; to experience the thrills and chills of the near miss of our own death…for now.
But what makes a great ghost story?
As the editor of The Horror Zine, here are the things I look for in ghost stories:
1. Ghosts are shrouded in mist and mystery; the specters and phantoms are never “in your face” but instead are subtle and creepy. Some of the scariest stories are the ones where the creature is suggested and not completely revealed, or seen at the corner of the eye.
2. Most ghosts are sad or tragic instead of evil; if the person was not evil in life, why would they be evil in death? Revenge is too common of a theme, so it is hard to make it original. I seek ghost stories where the specter has a different reason for showing up.
3. Speaking of, tradition says that ghosts generally do come for a reason (remember classic?). The trick is to make the reason unusual and therefore a surprise for the reader.
4. Surroundings are just as important to your tale as is the ghost itself. Set the scene. Neglected houses, cemeteries, country roads, basements…all add to the creep factor.
5. Don’t forget the humans. Make your human character likable and we will care what happens to him or her. We want to feel your character’s emotions as he or she deals with the ghosts. We want to feel we are part of that character.
An interesting take on the WHY of ghost stories can be found at http://www.skepticalanalysis.com/reports/ghosts/history.html
Here is an excerpt from that website:
It struck me that these ghost stories may function in the same way that urban legends do. Snopes.com says that urban legends “…reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views. It is through such stories that we attempt to make sense of our world, which at times can appear to be capricious and dangerous. As cautionary tales, urban legends warn us against engaging in risky behaviors by pointing out what has supposedly happened to others who did what we might be tempted try.” Urban Legends are complex warnings. Ghost stories may be the same.
From John Everson:
A great ghost story plays on both the hopes, and fears, of the reader. We all want to believe that there is a life beyond the one we are living… and when a character is faced with the inexplicable and shown a glimpse of what might be after this realm… well, we cheer for both the living, and the (apparent) dead. The best ghost stories to me, are those that somehow provide a message from the beloved dead of the lead character passed into this realm. The delivery of the message both “proves” the existence of a realm beyond, and also brings out the emotion of the connection. Communication from beyond the grave can be both creepy, and, strangely touching, if handled right.
Fleshing Out the Ghost
There has always been an affinity between the ghost story and the crime story. I think the Victorians probably brought this form of the ghost story to a high art form, but we have been tweaking and refining it ever since. I think the root cause of this affinity is the fact that we love a mystery solved. We love it when that which doesn’t make sense, which shouldn’t make sense, suddenly does. And we love being in on the answer to the riddle.
The ghost story, as a genre, gives us this in spades, and here’s why:
From Bruce Boston:
In the most effective ghost stories, the character and history of the ghost when alive, and why its spirit cannot rest, is portrayed in as much detail as the characters of those being haunted, so that both come to life for readers. A anonymous ghost, no matter how fiendish its antics, just isn’t as scary.
From Benjamin Kane Ethridge:
A traumatic history is a must for any effective ghost story. If you’re dealing with spirits who died naturally of old age in their sleep, there is no point for them feeling unrest. If the spirits in question were instead murdered in their sleep by a deranged family member whom they’d shown nothing but love, one could see their reluctance to rest in peace. Removing psychological trauma from a ghost story is akin to removing science from science fiction; that’s too necessary of a cog to go missing in the genre’s machine.
From Lee Thomas:
My favorite aspect of many ghost stories is the mystery. What is the ghost’s purpose? What tragic or malevolent event separated that spirit from its flesh and bone? Who pissed it off? That’s the really good stuff, whether the ghost is attempting to warn the protagonist as in Thomas Tessier’s Fogheart, or the spirits are straight up malevolent such as those inhabiting James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” Straub’s Julia, or Suzuki’s Ringu, it’s the mystery of their motivations that really pulls me in.
From Brian Moreland:
I love it when a ghost story has a detailed history that shows how a house became haunted or how the ghost came to be. This is especially entertaining when the unveiling of the back story unfolds as a mystery the main character solves. Movies like The Lady in Black, Stir of Echoes, and The Ring did this well. Another element is a creepy setting, like the hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The bathroom scene with the ghost of the old woman in the tub still haunts me.
So How Does the Magic Happen?
Storytelling is art, no question about it. And scaring people with a ghost is every bit as much a skill as making people believe in the power of a love story, or thrilling them with a crime, or intriguing them with the history of a forgotten time. Indeed, the ghost story often does all these things at once. But how? How can one revenant cover so much literary ground? How do storytellers do what they do when it comes the ghost story?
From Scott Nicholson:
For me, a good ghost story embodies not just the mysteries of faith, belonging, and what it means to be alive, but it also tells cultural and social truths. Having been raised with the old Appalachian front-porch tradition, I appreciate the local color of folklore, and I’ve also engaged in some paranormal investigation. I draw on all these experiences to deliver what I consider ‘modern folk tales’ in my writing, and that’s why I seek out horror that is more suspenseful than shocking.
From Harry Shannon:
I have always thought of the best ghost stories as a kind of metaphor for death anxiety, as Freud said, “the impossibility of further possibility,” We project our fear onto the unknown and get back echoes of our own guilt, shame and fear. Subconsciously we seem to be unable to imagine peace without emotional resolution, a state that so often eludes us in life.
From Nate Kenyon:
To me, the most important thing in a great ghost story is the element of surprise. If you can tell it sitting around a campfire and give people shivers by the end, you’ve done your job. Everyone wants to believe in ghosts–they want to believe in some form of life after death, it fascinates people, even if they’re afraid of the possibility. So you need to find a way for readers to identify with the protagonist to get that good scare at the end–in other words, this could be you. And it could be real.
From Weston Ochse:
The best ghost stories are written with restraint. It’s what isn’t on the page, it’s what you don’t see that scares you. More often then not, the reader will fill this emptiness with fears of their own. I think especially of Shirley’ Jackson’s The Haunting, when I think of this
From Michaelbrent Collings:
Ghost stories — good ones, at least — are as varied as fingerprints; as detailed as DNA. But like both fingerprints and DNA, most if not all ghost stories share certain common characteristics:
1. Mystery. Most ghost stories have at their heart a pair of question: who are the ghosts and what do they want? These details often appear peripheral — in Blatty’s The Exorcist, for example, the identity of the ghost doesn’t seem to have much import. But almost invariably, the other characters’ mental, emotional, and/or physical survival turns on discovering the motives behind the supernatural presence.
2. Isolation. Whether the isolation is social (as the family whose friends essentially desert them when little Regan starts acting so strangely in The Exorcist), emotional (young Cole’s almost complete withdrawal in The Sixth Sense), physical (e.g., King’s The Shining), or a combination of the three, the “living” characters must be cut off. Cut off from help, cut off from understanding — cut off from life itself. In a good ghost story, the living come to mirror the dead, as both are operating in a quasi-existence that allows for only limited interaction with others, thus bolstering the sense of dread and creeping loneliness that a good ghost story creates.
3. Life. It may seem strange, but life is a critical element of a ghost story. First, the ghosts’ victims must be interesting and sympathetic — lifelike enough that the readers care about them and so can experience a chill when the protagonists are put in danger. Would Hill House be quite so frightening were it not for the presence of the mouse-like and oddly endearing Eleanor? Would the Overlook scare anyone if not for the fact that it had turned its baleful eye on Danny?
But more than that, the ghosts themselves must be alive. This sounds oxymoronic at first, but almost every good ghost story has a ghost (or ghosts) who wants the same basic things any other “living” person does: to feel, to possess, to hold onto something… to live. Ghost that have motivation, that have desires and hopes and undead dreams are more powerful than those who simply moan and bang their chains from basement shadows.
There are, of course, exceptions to all these — but the exceptions so often prove the rule, and a ghost story that does have the above three things is often on the track to thrills, chills, and a strange kind of immortality in the minds of its readers.
A really effective ghost story is about the atmosphere; a slow build of creepiness done with a subtle touch. A ghost story is an invisible finger tracing down the back of your neck, not something jumping out of the closest going “RRRRAAAARRRGH!!!” My own approach to horror tends to be more of the “RRRRAAAARRRGH!!!” technique, which I guess is why I don’t write ghost stories!
From Gene O’Neill:
Good horror fiction can be divided into two categories: supernatural and psychological. There are many examples of great stories that fit in either category. But I think the best stories are when a writer tiptoes a line in the middle, right between supernatural and psychological, forcing the reader to define the story. Was that a ghost or was the narrator disturbed, the bizarre events all in his head? Of course the top stories are both. Perhaps the greatest ghost story ever written by Henry James, THE TURNING OF THE SCREW, is both. The governess in the story is of course disturbed, unreliable, but I’m convinced there also was sufficient evidence of a pair of ghosts in the famed tale. What do you think: Psychological/supernatural?
From Wrath James White:
For a ghost story to work for me, there needs to be the threat of genuine harm. The ghost who rattles chains in the attic and slams an occasional door isn’t enough to make a story terrifying in my opinion. It should be creepy, but more than creepy. The poltergeist with all the malevolence and ability to commit acts of cruelty and sadism as a living human being, yet cannot be fought off or brought to justice the way a living being can, is always effective. The supernatural element works even better when the specter of insanity is introduced. Is the protagonist delusional or is he or she really being threatened by something supernatural, something beyond the grave? That’s scary, especially when not even the protagonist themselves are certain.
From Ronald Malfi:
Every good ghost story should have an agenda: it should play out as a metaphor of the characters’ internal conflicts. As a writer, I am less
interested in ghosts than I am in the people who are haunted by them. The most frightening ghost stories are the ones where the reader is forced to reflect their own fears – and their own insecurities – onto the protagonists. The “haunting” is merely the conduit.
From Norman Prentiss:
The story needs to summon the ghost. For me, the same thing is true with any monster: I want the story to earn its supernatural or fantastic element, rather than just dropping it in at the start. A house can’t simply be a haunted place that random, frightened characters foolishly enter. Atmosphere is vital, since it allows the writer to build a setting that will introduce a ghost–and a “slow burn” is one of the most effective ways to produce escalating tensions that will invite the supernatural to appear.
From Yvonne Navarro:
The thing that makes a great ghost story work is the same thing that makes ghosts frightening in real life: the unknown thing you can’t see. Think about it-yes, a ghost you can see is scary, and maybe it’s chasing you or waving a spectral scythe in your direction. Fine; at least you know when to duck. I believe in ghosts, I’ve lived in a real haunted (and unfriendly) house, and I’ve spent a very long weekend at a haunted mansion with a bunch of friends. Doesn’t that sound like the makings of a B-movie? Admittedly yes, but we’re about to do it again at the end of this month. In all instances, it’s what I can’t see that is the most terrifying. Is it evil or good? Is it large or small? Is it amorphous or something that will manifest in lifelike clarity with brutally sharp teeth? Where is it? Behind me? Above me? Or following my footsteps by crawling upside down beneath the very floor on which I’m standing? If you disagree, think about yourself paralyzed ten feet from a not very large dog that’s growling at you. Now think about yourself paralyzed 10 feet away from a closed door and all you hear is the growling. You can’t see what’s making that noise. Is it a dog? Wolf? Werewolf? But you can see that the door isn’t quite latched and you know you’re only seconds away from facing whatever’s on the other side of the door. See what I mean?
Love and thanks to our contributing columnists for their time and insights.
We, the GHOST BLOGGERS would like to thank you for joining us this month. It has been an amazing journey through the darkness, but we did it together, and we all made it out alive. If you would like to learn more about Pete Giglio, click HERE. If you would like to learn more about Joe McKinney, click HERE. If you would like to learn more about Peter N. Dudar, click HERE. Special thanks to Evil Jester Press and Nightscape Press for their hard work and dedication to publishing Great Fiction!