Last night's event at Joseph-Beth was a great deal of fun–especially since I fully expected to be talking to my parents and Christopher, given cold, miserable weather, but ended up with a good-sized crowd filled with a few familiar faces and more unfamiliar ones. So thanks to all of you guys who came out and, of course, to the wonderful Joseph-Beth crew, as ever and always. MWAH.
Anyway, as promised, I told a little ghost story, which I had to preface with my general ghost story disclaimer. Which is, the ghost stories I tend to tell people come from my family members–primarily my grandmothers–and like most such stories that come from people relating their own personal tales of spooky happenings (or those of people they know/knew well), they tend not to really be story-shaped in the general way we think of stories. They aren't so much about an arc, a beginning-middle-and-end, as they are about an experience that happened to someone. If there's a revelation or overarching meaning, it's usually on the part of the person who experienced it. But, often as not, it's just a shared incident, a "this happened to me and it was strange and now I'm telling you about it" or "here is a seriously weird thing someone told me happened to them." Not to say there aren't masterfully shaped ghost stories that are stories, but they aren't usually the ones I tell. And I find the open-endedness of these ghost vignettes, let's call them, can be satisfying in an entirely different way. (And, in this sense, I believe in them the way I believe in all stories.)
SO, I thought I'd tell one here in honor of Halloween.
The one I told last night is from my paternal grandmother, and happened to her when she was a kid. It involves seeing a long table laid out with a sumptuous feast and people eating and drinking (but without sound she could hear) in the middle of a usually deserted field while she was on the way to feed the cows. I'm not going to tell that one here, because you can read a probably-more-satisfying version of it in Kelly Link's fabulously creepy "Two Houses," in the Ray Bradbury tribute anthology Shadow Show. (Bonus: There's also a borrowed creepy story of Christopher's in there, too.)
But here's another family ghost story, which I've dressed up a little for the occasion, but not too much…
There was this two-story house way back in the woods, off a certain ridgeline. It's abandoned now, but she remembers when people lived there. That was a long time ago, when she was a little girl. The family was tight-knit, but not from around the area originally. They moved in from somewhere vague, and never really fit in. After a few years living there, someone in the family died–maybe more than one someone–but no one can ever remember who it was. It might have been the older brother, away fighting a war, or the mother from some lingering illness. Maybe it was even the little girl. But the death devastated the family. They lost their money. They lost the house.
They left. The house was in an isolated area to begin with. It was a place that only became more and more isolated as roadways got established elsewhere. The road left to it was basically a deserted dirt track. No one else ever moved in, and no one knows who owns it, if anyone does. The bank might, if they bothered to claim it. The unmowed yard grew up all around it, and the trees kept watch. But mostly it was a forgotten place.
(photo courtesy of JanZio, not actual house in question)
Except, of course, not entirely forgotten. After a few years, there were some teenagers who remembered the family had lived there, and thought they'd go check it out. She was with them. One of them claimed the younger girl in the family told him a ghost story about the house. There's a single wide chimney that runs along the far side of it, two fireplaces stacked on top of each other–one on the first floor and one on the second. The girl told him that if you took off your shoes and put them in front of the fireplace on the top floor, then went back downstairs, your shoes would be waiting for you in front of the bottom fireplace. But only if you do it by yourself.
It seemed harmless and silly to try it. So, she said she would. She went in alone while the rest waited outside. She comes out ten minutes later, just as they're starting to worry, holding her shoes dangling from her hands and laughing. She swears to them that she went upstairs and put her shoes in front of the dusty fireplace, then picked her way down the rickety stairs to check. She swears it felt like someone was watching her as she found the shoes waiting there, just as promised, picked them up and came outside. But here she is, fine, holding her shoes.
No one else goes in to try it. Maybe they believe her, maybe they don't. I went and found the house with three friends when I was in high school, many years later. It was still standing, but barely. There were empty beer bottles on the porch. We dared each other to go upstairs and leave our shoes, but no one would go in alone. It was too dark that night, even with our flashlights.
And I don't think I'd have had the guts to try it anyway. I've always wondered, what happens if the house decides not to give them back?
Happy Halloween, everyone.