Thursday, June 24, 2010

Essence of Summer

Once I faced up to the fact that vertigo was kicking my butt and I was neither smart nor steady enough to do anything useful, I made the most of it and spent some long June afternoons indulging in the prime luxury of summer: Reading true ghost stories on the balcony, with a cold drink.

Once upon a time a bag of chips would have been included in that luxury, and I would have had the option of caffeine in the drink; but the hot sun and the cold drink and the true stories of weirdness are good enough. Plus, of course, cats, one in the lap and one following the shade across the porch.

I have always craved the weird and been more or less afraid of the dark. If I confine my reading of ghost stories and so on to the sunny hours, I spend fewer of the dark ones lying awake dreading the presences I cannot see. I derive considerable pleasure from bungee jumping (mentally) through a universe vast enough that my finite human mind is under no obligation to understand all of it, contemplating mysterious appearances and disappearances, apparitions, poltergeists, sourceless voices, animals displaced in time or space, all the apparently impossible experiences of ordinary people. I hate being scared.

Most literary supernatural tales focus too much on instilling fear and use too many of the old gothic trappings to satisfy me. It always seemed to me grossly unfair that the really pretty houses, with the towers and bay windows and gingerbread and so on (I love a frilly building) in fiction were so often unliveable due to ghosts; and also that, unlike in real life, the residents of ordinary ranch houses never had anything interesting happen to them. This was a large part of the motivation behind The Ghost Sitter - to put a fictional ghost into a house that the individuals making up my audience were likely to live in.

In fact, I wanted to write a ghost story that took the assumptions of modern ghost theory and put them to good use; one that read like fiction, but satisfied the same itch as true ones. Closure, but not too many answers.

True weird stories seldom have neat resolutions, but they often open up vistas of possibility. And they are just as likely to happen in full summer sunlight as in the wet, cold, windy, dreary wuthering heights of tradition. When those mainstay authors of my childhood, Susy Smith and Hans Holzer, tracked down ghosts, they were as likely to manifest on sunny porches, in busy warehouses, in new houses with Florida rooms as in atmospheric theaters or spooky old houses. Fairies dance and girls perform divinations on Midsummer Night. Brownies did housework. Poltergeists throw stones and break dishes in broad daylight. People see water monsters and Bigfoot on their summer vacations. The most long-lasting, bizarre, and witnessed haunting in American history, the Bell Witch, took place in the sunny hills of Tennessee. And I eat it all up with a spoon.

Even when we approach the literary tradition, the cold misty Halloweeny setting isn't as prevalent as the stereotypes would have us think. Every ghost story J. Frank Dobie ever told is saturated with the dry, hot air of Texas and northern Mexico. One of the spookiest, most atmospheric fictions ever penned is called "August Heat." (It is also a model of concision. Poe would weep to find himself surpassed like this.) "The Willows", by Algernon Blackwood, and "They," by Rudyard Kipling, are both summer stories, and though Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's much-anthologized "A Pair of Hands" is told in front of a fireplace, it happens amid the blossoms of banksia, clematis, and honeysuckle.

But nothing scratches that particular summer-time, porch-reading, cat-basking, salt-craving, cold-drinking itch like a good compilation of unexplained happenings in real life. Charles Fort, Rupert Gould, Martin Gardner, Frank Edwards, John Keel, I don't care who wrote it or what his take is on it. If it's about ghosts, fairies, monsters, poltergeists, or just the flat-out bizarre, and it's about real events, I'm there. It is thanks to this indiscriminate reading habit that I have any critical sense at all, for these people seldom agreed with each other, are not always reliable, and do not always tell you when they're joking or have a vested interest. (For the perfect Fortean read, I give you The Mothman Prophecies , by John Keel. Not the movie, though.) The same data can be interpreted as proof of any number of things depending on your starting premises. Believers in a phenomenon might be too quick to accept a hoax, but a skeptic of the same phenomenon can tie the evidence into knots in order to find one.

And where do I stand? Why, I believe - in ghosts and fairies and poltergeists and any number of things; but I don't know what any of them are. I don't care, either. All I want is the story.

If someone tells me he's seen the apparition of a girl in a full skirt and a sunbonnet on the patio at the Old Alsatian, it is not for me to argue with him, though I don't believe any girl is buried there. (That slab was in all probability removed from the cookhouse, built in 1856, when Mr. Belcher repaired the back wall and dumped stones and stucco along the fence line.) It might be one of the Karle girls, or one of their friends, returning to a happy place; it might be something masquerading as one; it might be something the human eye can't interpret that the brain turned into a pioneer girl in order to interpret it into something.

I don't mind not knowing. I like it. As long as it's honest not-knowing, not laziness and failing to do the research. Not knowing is where curiosity, research, and storymaking start.

Speaking of laziness - I need a new cold drink.

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